A country of nearly seven million people, Laos is in the midst of a long-running economic boom: high annual growth, major infrastructure projects under construction, and enormous foreign investment give the impression of a country on the rise. Yet this boom has bypassed many Laotians who work in agriculture and subsist on the rice they grow. This is particularly true for the mountainous uplands of the country, where poor infrastructure and land unsuitable for rice paddies mean that these farmers have historically been trapped in cycles of poverty with no way to improve their conditions.
The Agro-Biodiversity Initiative (TABI) was a long-term programme funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). It focussed on reducing poverty and improving the livelihoods of these upland Laotian communities while encouraging the sustainable and environmentally sound management of land and forest resources.
Agro-biodiversity refers to the amount of variety in animals, plants, and microorganisms used for food, livelihoods, and incomes. By increasing agro-biodiversity in the upland districts, farmers have been able to diversify the crops they cultivate and livestock they breed, adding cash crops like honey and coffee to their subsistence farming activities. Furthermore, forest resources can be sustainably and effectively utilised with the proper skills, increasing the amount of income-generating land and helping forest habitats to thrive.
Diversifying livelihoods is the first step to improved incomes
Using agro-biodiversity as the foundation, TABI’s first priority was to develop new opportunities to sustain local livelihoods in the farming communities of these rural regions, by recognising and supporting the already existing diversity of potential commodities that grow in this region. This involved training local communities and government agencies to be better equipped to identify options for diversifying away from simple subsistence farming and monocropping and subsequently to support farmers in their efforts to do so. New rice farming techniques have improved productivity and yields, and untapped natural resources have been brought into production with activities such as beekeeping, cultivation of coffee, management of natural tea habitats, fish conservation, native species-focussed agriculture, and organic vegetable farming.
These efforts have been notably successful, with a mid-term review of the programme finding that – despite difficulty in getting accurate data – at least 8,400 households have seen substantial increases in income. Government and local staff have been trained in technical aspects of agro-biodiversity and have helped to raise awareness of the many options available to farmers. Skills manuals were developed providing blueprints for new livelihood activities including handicrafts which effectively take advantage of the resources becoming available through the programme. It has also instilled a sense of pride among the farmers that local indigenous products are promoted and in demand in the market.
Community participation is key for successfully managing land and forest resources
A new and innovative methodology for carrying out forest and agricultural land use planning and management (FALUPAM) was developed during phase I of TABI. This methodology was developed based on the principle that even the best practices will fall short if they do not recognise and respect traditional livelihoods. This means focussing on stabilising and managing cultivation so that local communities aren’t negatively impacted by the changes, instead seeing immediate benefits to leaving some land and forest fallow as other areas are brought to more productive use.
The programme’s outcomes have been noticeable on a broad scale: moving from a scattered cultivation to a collective zonation system changes the way the very landscape looks. Communities have felt benefits in direct and tangible ways, as wildfires are far easier to manage and control, conflict over land use between families and communities has decreased, and overall productivity has increased. Beyond the impact on communities, P-FALUPAM also emphasised ecological preservation, increasing the areas of conserved forests, and helping to stabilise the ecosystem.
Evidence leads to learning – and knowledge should be shared
From its beginning, TABI had a built-in focus on evidence and learning. This iterative process allowed for adjustments during the course of the programme, focussing on what worked best and ensuring that the local communities and environment got the greatest possible benefit. As a result, enormous amounts of data have been collected – baseline agro-biodiversity, spatial, and land use data, as well as secondary data from censuses and similar sources.
In its final year, it’s important to ensure that the data generated through TABI – including success stories and lessons learned – can continue to be accessed and used by others such as governments, donors, and communities, to ensure that future work in this area is conducted as effectively as possible. To this end, the Pha Khao Lao Agro-Biodiversity Resource Platform, seeks to engage a broader cross-section of society in the mission to improve rural agro-biodiversity by making this data accessible in a fun and interesting way. In stimulating a market for agrobiodiversity products, the platform hopes to create an incentive to protect Laos’s many unique natural resources and its rich heritage.
TABI has also produced a beautifully illustrated book that mixes novel-style story-telling with facts from the project in a creative tapestry of people, change, challenges and success. Living Landscapes: Embracing Biodiversity in Northern Laos is not an evaluation or assessment of TABI’s performance bur rather “a sincere effort to learn from the work that TABI did along with a wide range of partners and stakeholders over its 10-year journey”.