A shift towards monoculture plantations and higher chemical use is of great concern to many in the Mekong region, particularly due to the impact this is having on food security and health.
Farmers who have resisted monoculture cropping, and opted to maintain or create mixed-species agroforestry systems, are benefiting from income and food security and reduced reliance on fertilizer and pesticides.
“Rubber trees are invading fruit orchards and watershed forest,” explains Cheardsak Kuaraska, vice-dean of the Faculty of Technology and Community Development at Thaksin University in Phattalung, Thailand. “Oil palm is invading rice paddy and lowland forests, especially peat forests.” He warns that southern Thailand is now faced with a food security problem.
Kuaraska estimates that rubber and oil palm now cover 33 per cent of the province of Phattalung in Thailand. Not only are they replacing food crops, he says, they are impacting on ecosystems; farmers are using higher amounts of fertilizer which is causing damage to the environment and health problems.
Lamphoune Xyvongsa from the Faculty of Forestry at the National University of Lao explains that it is becoming more difficult for people to gather food from the forest because many natural forests have been converted to plantations.
Kuaraska and Xyvongsa are among a group of researchers and farmers from Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Viet Nam who appear in a series of 13 short films produced by the World Agroforestry Centre, discussing land-use problems in their countries and the role agroforests play in solving them.
Both believe agroforestry offers a sustainable alternative for farmers in the Mekong region; providing them with year-round income and a diversity of foods and other products while also offering many environmental benefits.
“How can we expand this knowledge to other farmers so that they can change their practice from monoculture to mixed-species?” asks Kuaraska. “Research is still necessary. We need to collaborate so that we can compare data on how one kind of farming practices is better than other kinds.
Farmers Chamni Yodkaewruang and Charus Kaewkong from Phattalung, Thailand and Pasith Pimpramote, from Vientiane in Laos, say agroforestry gives them different products at different times which can be consumed and or sold.
“Diversity creates everything,” says Yodkaewruang. “It maintains human lives.” His mixed-species orchards include fig, Alstonia, oak, Artocarpus elasticus and ironwood.
Kaewkong has replaced the rubber trees which grew around his home with durian, mangosteen, coconut and others. “We are never hungry,” he says.
Among Kaewkong’s fruit trees, he grows edible ferns and bamboo. “When my kids come back from the city they take them [bamboo shoots] to Surat Thani province. They can make 40, 50 or 70 Baht at a time. For the neighbours, if they want the bamboo shoots to make curry, they can come and take them.”
“The tall trees, the kids and grandkids can use them for house construction.”
“If I grow jujubes and if the price is down this year or there are pests, resulting in a low yield, I have another crop to sell,” Pimpramote explains. “If I grow jackfruit and the jackfruit prices are not good, I will sell tamarind.”
Witoon Chamroen, another farmer from Phattalung Province has created a rubber ‘jungle’ based on his ancestors’ knowledge. He treats his old rubber trees as ‘nursery’ trees and this mixed system gives him edible plants, material for house construction and for energy. His rubber trees still produce more latex than younger trees.
“Trees are renewable, they will never run out if we know how to use them,” says Chamroen. “It’s about creating biodiversity, becoming self-sufficient. If this is done, you will not be poor.”
In his quest to prove that multi-species cropping systems are beneficial, Naris Khamthisri, a farmer from Sakon Nakhon in Thailand has gathered information from researchers, experts and farmers from all over Thailand. He strongly believes agroforestry provides economic security, food security, food safety, job security and health.
“Farmers can earn daily, monthly, yearly incomes” from these systems and “because we produce ourselves we know how the food is produced,” stresses Khamthisri.
“If we practice agroforestry, there will be less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Our good health will follow. Good health is difficult to accomplish, and it cannot be bought.”
The use of chemicals in food production is of particular concern to Pongnapha Srina, a farmer from Nan Province in Thailand.
“When I grew maize, I used my income to buy food from the market. There was no way to know whether there was any pesticide residue in the food from the market,” she says. “I decided to grow my own. I can eat whatever I like. It is like I have my own fresh market. I can save what I used to spend on buying food. I can also eat pesticide-free food.”
The series of films give an insight into how farmers from across the Mekong region have been motivated to practice agroforestry and the many benefits they derive from it.