After the meeting, and to get a better idea of the situation of the farming systems we will be studying with our local research and development partners, I went on a two-day tour across the rural areas of northwest Vietnam. I asked a reputable operator specialized in natural adventure tours how best to see the natural environment around Sapa up close and opted for the two-day mountain bike ride in the mountains East of Lao Cai city.
I was not disappointed. Cycling through the mountains allowed me to go through several of the main landscapes of the humid tropics in northwest Vietnam and to see their agricultural production and marketing systems. The exhilarating 16 km ride down from 1600 m into the Chay river valley offered a fascinating vertical transect of changing agricultural practices along the mountain slope.
Humidtropics aims to help poor farm families, particularly those led by women, in tropical Africa, Asia and the Americas, to boost their income from integrated agricultural systems’ intensification while preserving their land for future generations. In this program, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) hopes to enhance the contribution of livestock in sustaining the farming systems and livelihoods of smallholder farmers. We wish to uncover the integrative roles livestock play in traditional and innovative production systems.
My two-day bicycle ride allowed me to gather visual evidence of the central role that water buffaloes play in the upland mixed rice-maize production system and in the livelihoods of the Hmong ethnic minority in northwest Vietnam.
The buffaloes have a clear role in transferring natural fertility from forests and fallow land to crop land. This farming system has been in existence for the past 2000 years after arising on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, according to Mazoyer and Roudart.
How can buffaloes transfer fertility from the forests to crop land? By using the natural mobility of the animals. Children lead them to graze in the forest each day. They spend their whole day in the shade foraging on natural grass and leaves. Closer to the farm, the buffaloes are sometimes let loose onto fields that have already been harvested to eat the crop residues, making full use of the organic matter produced.
In the evening, the buffaloes are parked under their shed, where they will defecate their dung: a natural source of organic matter and minerals. This can be dried or incorporated into compost and used as fertilizer for the fields to grow more crops.
I was fortunate to chance upon the scene below. It encapsulates the central role of the buffalo in the upland maize cropping system. We see here a whole family preparing a plot of sloping land for maize production.
The buffalo is doing the hard work pulling the plough. The lady on the right with the woven basket is handling black solid matter — buffalo dung — and dropping it into the furrows. The boy bent over behind the plough is inserting a seed into the furrow. The other household members with hoes are turning soil onto seed and dung to protect them from runoff due to rain.
Perhaps less pleasant from the buffalo’s perspective, but essential to the household’s livelihood, selling a small buffalo or even an adult is a ready source of cash for the family. Weekly livestock markets are held in the various towns of the province where farmers can sell their produce and livestock in exchange for cash.
I got a terribly aching backside after cycling up and down over 100 km in two days. Nonetheless, this quick overview as a tourist, complemented by information from my local guide, has already given me interesting insights into the local production and marketing systems, and the role of livestock within them.
In the coming years, more rigorous research by Humidtropics’ colleagues and our local partners will try to improve these systems for better and sustainable smallholder livelihoods.
Jo Cadilhon, ILRI Policies, Trade and Value Chains Program