Winning the upland poverty war

 Bob Hill   |  


Producing more rice on less land and with less labor is seen as the key to breaking the poverty cycle, says Sushil Pandey. (Photo: Dante Palmes)

Producing more rice on less land and with less labor is seen as the key to breaking the poverty cycle, says Sushil Pandey. (Photo: Dante Palmes)

For much of the past three decades, the remote uplands of Southeast Asia and Indochina have been home to large but isolated human populations living in poverty; their struggle for sustenance draining the life from vast areas of mountain forests.

Hence, improving life for isolated mountain communities, numbering as many as 20 million people, has become a priority for scientists and policymakers alike, concerned on the one hand to make upland cropping systems more productive and on the other to halt further destruction of forests by farmers anxious to find new and more fertile fields.

At last, the seemingly impenetrable cycle of poverty in the uplands is being broken, and misery is retreating in the face of new hope. However, the transformation has been sporadic. In China’s southwestern Yunnan Province, vast numbers of mountain farmers have emerged from long poverty through the government’s introduction of new higheryielding varieties of upland rice (see A mountainous success, on pages 33-35 of Rice Today Vol. 5, No. 1). In northern Thailand, huge tracts of mountainsides have become richly productive vegetable gardens in response to the development of road access to markets.

In both cases, the turning point came when food security was assured. Relieved from the crushing struggle to feed their families, farmers could think, instead, of boosting their cash incomes.

Tyrannical terrain
The staple food in the mountain communities is upland rice or rice that grows on dry land, like wheat or maize. Traditionally, it is grown on sloping fields carved out of mountain forests. But, even at best, in the first planting season on a newly cleared field, traditional varieties of upland rice barely yield enough grain to feed a family. As soil nutrients are exhausted in successive cropping seasons, rice yields dwindle and weeds and pests multiply. Eventually, the field is abandoned and the farmer “shifts his cultivation” to another area, intending to return to the original field when its fertility is restored by a period of fallow.

When populations were smaller and the cropping pressure on fields was significantly less, abandoned fields could remain fallow for long enough to regain their fertility. But, as populations grew and governments forbade further forest encroachment, the pressure on farmers’ fields to continue producing food became intolerable. Exhausted fields lost the ability to either produce crops or recover after a fallow period.

Adding to their predicament, upland farmers are risk averse; they either cannot afford or are unwilling to invest in technologies that may help them. All around, the tyranny of their mountainous isolation bears down on them—from long, cold winters and hot, wet summers to sloping fields, which, if given a choice, no farmers in their right mind would opt to cultivate.

Improvement has been slow and difficult. But, increasingly, upland communities have started to overcome the problems.

Rice landscapes

At the heart of the issue are rice and food security. The International Rice Research Institute has long been involved in the uplands, coordinating regional scientific efforts and helping to apply the successes of one community to those in neighboring countries. It manages a broadly based project called Rice Landscape Management for Raising Water Productivity, Conserving Resources, and Improving Livelihoods in Upper Catchments of the Mekong and Red River Basins. Supported by the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF), the project has collaborators across Southeast Asia and Indochina and from as far away as France and the United States. It covers northern Thailand and Laos in the Mekong Basin and northern Vietnam in the Red River Basin, matching a parallel project supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) covering India and Nepal.

With a focus on managing rice landscapes, the research effort is not restricted to rice fields alone, but to rice landscapes as a whole, and ranges from introducing new higher-yielding rice varieties to improving the way farmers use their land and water resources. By intensifying food production in favorable pockets of the uplands, people hope that pressure on less favorable, more fragile areas will decrease.

Producing more rice on less land and with less labor is seen as the key to breaking the poverty cycle, says Sushil Pandey, senior agricultural economist and leader of IRRI’s research program “Rice Policy Support and Impact Assessment.” Dr. Pandey also leads the rice landscape management project. (Watch related video on Youtube).

Importantly, the project’s aim is to help poor upland farmers to develop livelihood options, to break the cycle of constraint that holds them in poverty. It is widely acknowledged that these options will only beckon when poor farmers achieve a secure food supply, so they can begin to think about how to increase and diversify their income possibly by growing cash crops or raising livestock.

Link with the past
One of the best examples is the success story of northern Thailand, where the poverty and food insecurity of two decades ago have been defeated by the construction of roads, access to markets, and long official and scientific effort. Large numbers of upland farmers have become commercial vegetable gardeners, covering entire mountainsides with colorful mosaics of cash crops. In stark contrast to the lives of their fathers and grandfathers, individual farmers have become wealthy.

In the mountains between the township of Mae Chaem, southwest of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and the border with Myanmar, the landscape of the Mae Suk watershed is breathtaking. The mountainsides climb in a checkerboard of colors from narrow valleys to forested ridges reaching more than 1,000 meters above sea level. A patchwork of green, yellow, brown, orange, and russet is painted across slopes that would daunt a nimble goat.

Yet, in the midst of this abundance is an enduring link with the past. Upland rice still has its place among the cabbages, shallots, tomatoes, maize, and soybeans. Moreover, the farmers have maintained paddies for lowland rice in the valley bottoms, committing their meager water resources to an age-old practice that logic suggested they would abandon upon achieving sufficient food security.

“This is not something I expected to observe here,” says Dr. Pandey. “Farmers either grow upland rice [as a subsistence crop] and a very small area of cash crops or forego rice altogether and grow commercial crops only.” In other words, if cash income from growing vegetables is dependable, why not abandon rice growing altogether, commit their entire land and water resources to growing vegetables, and simply buy rice from the market?

Seng Yang, a Hmong farmer, earns well from cash crops but reserves patches of his field to grow better-quality upland rice.

Seng Yang, a Hmong farmer, earns well from cash crops but reserves patches of his field to grow better-quality upland rice.

The Karen1 farmers of Mae Suk, perhaps, demonstrate how difficult it is for upland communities to accept that their food supply is secure.

In one area, a group of Karen farmers cultivates a large area of upland rice, despite their simultaneous cultivation of cash crops. One of the farmers explained that the rice crop was purely to feed farmers’ families.

Growing commercial crops alone involves a substantial financial risk, because market prices fluctuate, and the mix of vegetables and rice mitigates that risk, this farmer indicated. Growing commercial vegetable crops also requires finance, and the Karen farmers have limited access to capital. They also lack water for irrigation, eliminating the option of dry-season crops.

The leading vegetable gardeners in the Mae Suk watershed are of Hmong ethnic background. Much to the surprise of researchers, the urge to grow their own rice continues even among the Hmong farmers, even though their steep mountainsides are closely packed with vegetable crops and their land is seldom, if ever, left fallow.

Seng Yang, a Hmong farmer, claims to own about 16 hectares of soaring hillsides. Aged 45, he is head of an extended family of 17, including his own eight children and the families of three of his older children. He grows shallots, cabbages, maize, and rice.

“I earn well from shallots,” he says. “I can harvest 100,000 kilograms of shallots from one crop, and sell them at 10 baht (US$0.30) per kilogram.”

Flourishing upland farms
In many respects, this moderately crowded but remote community of upland farmers stands at the leading edge of upland agricultural development. The productivity of the towering mountainsides is prodigious. Throughout each day, legions of laboring pickup trucks—each carrying about one and a half tons of freshly packed vegetables—head off up the sealed road that first introduced the farmers to the bonanza of city markets.

The competition for limited water is obvious. Flooding and heavy runoff are, in most cases, out of the question. Much of the irrigation is done with sprinklers, so the farmers are quick to dispute any suggestion that their heavy use of fertilizer and pesticides may become a downstream problem. They say they use water sparingly and the chemicals stay where they are applied.

But, because—in a sense—the farmers of the Mae Suk watershed lead the upland development field, their successes and failures, and excesses and constraints, serve as a rich learning ground about the kinds of systems that might evolve elsewhere in the highlands of Southeast Asia and Indochina, together with the trade-offs involved, and the conflicts.

“I live for eating rice, so I grow rice,” Seng Yang explains, voicing a common standpoint in the uplands of northern Thailand. “I know it’s easier to buy rice, but it’s not good quality. It’s better to grow it myself.”

His latest crop was lowland jasmine rice, grown in small terraces covering about one-sixth of a hectare. He also grows upland rice on a mountainside block. It yields only about half the grain he gets from his lowland fields, mainly, he says, because of competition from weeds.

Seng Yang says he will offer some of his rice to his ancestors as soon as the grain is bagged and stored. He still wants to grow rice for this reason although he could earn more income by growing vegetables. He says that to grow the same area with vegetables, he would earn three times the value of the rice crop.

“But it’s not good to buy rice for my ancestors,” he says. “Offering them rice I have grown myself shows the proper respect.”

Balancing act
Not far from Seng Yang, another Hmong farmer, Daecha Kulsawatmongkol,32, sets aside a sizable plot for upland rice every season in his tightly packed checkerboard of mountainside vegetables.

He grows rice to feed his family of 15 people, because “rice is expensive now.” What’s more, he says, it is difficult to buy good-quality rice—the kind of rice he likes to eat. As it is, his halfhectare field of upland rice, although it will yield nearly 1.5 tons of paddy, will fall well short of feeding his family and he will have to buy about 1.2 tons of “rough rice” to supplement his harvest.

The area Daecha sets aside for upland rice every year is a balancing act between his family’s desire for a goodquality staple and the need for income from cash crops.

He claims to maintain high productivity by ceaselessly rotating his crops around his 9.6 hectares of sloping land. He uses fertilizer for upland rice only if it is planted on the same field for two consecutive seasons.

Daecha also laments the limitations on his vegetable production because of a shortage of water. He has a farm pond, but still runs short in the dry season. Nevertheless, even if he had less land, he would still grow upland rice because it supplies food during the “hungry months” of September and October, when lowland rice has not been harvested and rice prices in the market are relatively high.

In his community, comprising about 18 Karen and Hmong families, five or six have opted not to grow rice, and concentrate solely on cash crops.

“They find it easier to concentrate on vegetables and buy their rice, but in recent years the price of vegetables has gone down and the price of rice has gone up,” he said.

Love for rice

If the upland farmers of the Mae Suk watershed provide a “window into the future” for mountain communities elsewhere in the region, then one of its most surprising aspects has been the tenacious desire of farmers to continue growing upland rice, despite being well ahead—relative to other upland communities—in the escape from poverty. Among researchers on the rice landscapes project, it is additionally fascinating for its demonstration that there is still room in the uplands of northern Thailand for their project to reinforce the process of income generation, by further improving local rice technologies.

In the uplands of Laos and Vietnam, the IRRI-led project is seeking to improve farming technologies ranging from rice varieties to better management, with the latter focusing mainly on water productivity. The improved varieties— better suited to upland conditions as well as to lowland areas in valley bottoms and on terraces and lower slopes—are being validated in farmers’ fields. Improved technologies for irrigation of rice, such as alternate wetting and drying, seek to use sometimes meager water resources more effectively. By producing more rice from less water on less land and with less labor, farmers will be able to turn these resources to producing cash crops or other income-generating activities.

Other technologies include purer seed stocks of better traditional rice varieties and improved techniques for maintaining fertility or restoring plant nutrients to exhausted soils.

However, no matter how prosperous they may become, the Thailand experience suggests that upland farmers will most likely continue to grow upland rice, and there will probably always be room—if not demand—for improved technologies in their rice landscapes.

One of the project’s principal collaborators in Thailand is Chiang Mai University. Its professor of agricultural economics, Benchaphun Ekasingh, has studied her country’s upland farming systems for many years.

“They have come a long way,” she said. “Because of market access, we have a very productive upland farming system in Thailand. We thought that upland rice was going away, that the farmers would abandon it in favor of cash crops; but the farmers have decided there is a niche for it. It is their choice not to abandon it.”

Dr. Benchaphun said she saw a very productive future for Thailand’s upland farmers. “But I think their farming systems will have to be more conservation-oriented—in particular soil and water conservation. This will come about because outsiders will demand it.”

Bob Hill is a Thailand-based writer specializing in science and technology. 

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