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CGIAR integrated systems research for sustainable agricultural development in the Mekong—New book

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Image credit: Humidtropics.

A new book from CGIAR offers lessons for researchers working with smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia to further adoption of integrated agricultural systems innovations. ‘

Published by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) as an output of the recently concluded CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics  (‘Humidtropics’ for short), the new book offers insights and recommendations to support research on integrated agricultural systems targeting smallholder farmers. Its lessons are gleaned from Humidtropics program research in the Central Mekong ‘Action Area’.—Lisa Hiwasaki on ICRAF’s ‘Agroforestry World‘ blog

From the book’s preface
‘The Mekong region covers several mainland Southeast Asian countries. The region has a huge heterogeneity in its topography, farming systems, ethnic populations, markets and sociopolitical systems. It is moreover undergoing intense social, economic and ecological changes that offer many economic opportunities, and at the same time pose potential threats to the livelihoods of rural populations and smallholder farmers. Expanding infrastructure and markets, and government policies and programs that promote rural and agricultural development, present opportunities for improving these livelihoods. At the same time, rapid conversion to specialized and intensified forms of agriculture and other land uses, in addition to rapid population growth, have created significant challenges in upland agricultural systems including:

  • environmental degradation
  • limited and inequitable access to markets
  • decreasing productivity and total farm income
  • inequitable access to natural resources such as land and water
  • marginalized ethnic minorities

‘Any successful attempt to understand and address the complex challenges or grasp the opportunities requires an integrated systems research approach. Integrated systems research seeks to comprehend the different dimensions of complex agricultural problems, e.g. technological, economic and institutional challenges, and how these are affecting or require addressing across farm, community or policy levels. This automatically implies that stakeholders across different levels—e.g. farmers, the private sector, national institutions, development actors and governments—need to be involved in identifying, analysing and prioritizing problems, as well as in designing and implementing innovative solutions to overcome the problems. Another key characteristic of integrated systems research is that it seeks to explore trade-offs and synergies across dimensions, levels and stakeholder groups. For example, in terms of how new technologies could affect the natural resource base or land health, interventions at policy levels could enable or constrain actors at community or farm levels. Similarly, positive changes for specific stakeholder gender or age groups could imply negative changes for others.

‘The CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics (Humidtropics) was an agricultural research for development program that aimed for sustainable intensification of agricultural systems to improve the livelihoods of farm households. Humidtropics was implemented in Central America, West Africa, East and Central Africa, and in the Central Mekong. The Central Mekong Action Area was primarily focused on the complex of rice and non-rice farming systems (plus areas with other land uses) in the non-flood-prone lowlands, uplands and highlands. The Action Area covered six countries (Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam). . . .’

From the abstract
‘This book is the result of research for development activities implemented from 2013 to 2016 in Central Mekong Action Area of Humidtropics, the CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics. The objective of this book is to demonstrate achievements made, as well as challenges faced, while implementing integrated systems research to promote sustainable development of smallholder farming in the uplands of the Mekong region. The book is organized around three research themes:

  • Systems analysis and synthesis, establishing baselines and conducting situation analysis to identify interventions
  • Integrated systems improvement in practice, the various interventions undertaken to promote environmentally sustainable smallholder agriculture
  • Nutrition dimensions, the challenges of ensuring incorporation of nutrition within the production and livelihood systems.

From the conclusions and recommendations
‘. . . We claim that agricultural R4D to  improve livelihoods of smallholder farmers would have more impact if it goes beyond simply focusing on agricultural production and includes agricultural R4D activities that strengthen farmers’ roles in the value chain. This might take the form of connecting smallholder farmers to markets, supporting the development of entrepreneurship and agribusiness, building social networks for agribusiness, or by improving farmers’ capacities to improve product quality and processing.

. . . [L]ocal traditional products, crops and livestock exhibit untapped potential for high-value markets beyond the region, due to their unique characteristics and the value placed by consumers on their origin.

‘It was evident from agricultural R4D on safe vegetables in Northwest Viet Nam that producers have the potential to earn much higher incomes, as long as they are connected to the market. Taking a public-private partnership approach to develop market-driven branding and certification systems could significantly contribute to improving livelihoods, especially of smallholder farmers in upland areas.

‘. . . [W]e recommend that future R4D activities for  sustainable intensification prioritize techniques that concurrently meet several criteria:

  • the generation of short-term additional incomes
  • limited initial investment needs
  • long-term conservation of natural resources (e.g. water and soils)

One example is the conversion of monoculture plantations to agroforestry polycultures that both generate short-term incomes (e.g. cardamom or broom grass as understorey crops in teak plantations) and long-term incomes (timber and latex from the teak and rubber trees, respectively), and that also protect the soil against erosion: the understorey both reduces the erosive power of raindrops hitting the soil and improves runoff infiltration.

Another example is integrated coffee and livestock farming systems, where farmers diversify their coffee production by planting forage grasses and legume species (which can help with intensification of animal production, reduce soil erosion and build soil fertility). The animal manure can be used to increase the productivity and quality of coffee.

‘To ensure agricultural R4D in the Central Mekong  empowers women, youth and other marginalized groups, we recommend that inequity be addressed, not just in agricultural development but also in how agricultural R4D is conducted. . . .

‘As for promoting  institutional innovation, while bottom-up participatory approaches are often perceived as the most promising for innovation and scaling of innovation, they may not be sufficient. . . . R4D should account for both local knowledge and state-of-the-art innovations (scientific knowledge).’

Download the book
Integrated Systems Research for Sustainable Smallholder Agriculture in the Central Mekong: Achievements and challenges of implementing integrated systems research, edited by Lisa Hiwasaki, Adrian Bolliger, Guillaume Lacombe, Jessica Raneri, Marc Schut and Steve Staal. Staal is a program leader at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Read more
Lessons from an integrated systems research program in Central Mekong, ICRAF ‘Agroforestry World’ blog, 23 Feb 2017.

Visit the Humidtropics website.

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