Bunlom Phantavong comes from a long line of rice farmers in the southern Savannakhet province of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos). He is proud of how rice production has been passed down from one generation to another but admits he is struggling with the regular approaches to farming.
“In the past we used to farm in harmony with the environment. But now we have more pests, and we do not know how to cope with them.”
Phantavong and many other small-scale farmers in the Lao PDR have always relied on their rice fields and the surrounding forest for their lives and livelihoods. While the rice paddy is central to their communities, they also gather native aquatic plants and animals such as fish, crabs and frogs to supplement their diet.
Yet, as the population has grown, food production has declined. Deforestation and destructive farming practices have damaged the natural environment, and rural communities have found it more difficult to sustain themselves using traditional farming and gathering practices.
Now, farmers are going back to an ancient, time-tested practice that FAO is helping them rediscover: rice-fish farming.
The fish, or other aquatic animals like frogs, eat the insects and worms and the pond water is then used to fertilise rice and other crops.
This practice had been employed by farmers in Asia for thousands of years, but has fallen out of practice in recent times, largely due to the intensification of rice production and pesticide use.
But promoting species diversification and biodiversity is a simple approach that encourages farmers to use the resources they already have so they can increase the production of rice and aquatic animals while reducing the use of fertilisers and pesticides.
FAO’s Regional Rice Initiative is helping communities bounce back from the environmental degradation and effects of climate change that have left them feeling powerless.
Since 2013, FAO has been working with the department of livestock and fisheries (DLF) of the Lao ministry of agriculture and forestry to develop a rice-fish farming approach, communicating the value of local aquatic resources and helping communities turn their rice fields into a more productive and biologically diverse landscape.
Diversifying production is not only good for the environment, it also reduces poverty.
“By recognising the value of local aquatic resources and enabling local agricultural staff to become facilitators, we have helped farmers to double their revenues just by introducing simple methods to diversify their farming practices,” says Matthias Halwart, FAO’s global aquaculture team leader.
“Without a huge investment, the farmers are motivated to innovate and this has led to significant gains.”
Supported by FAO and DLF, local government agricultural extension workers and village elders have led forums where farmers share their ideas and years of farming experience to rejuvenate food production.
Capacity-building starts with a conversation and empowers the community. Phantavong spoke to other farmers about his frog production. “I use a new technique by feeding the frogs in the pond. I don’t have to clean their waste. Villagers agree with me and accept this technique because it costs less.”
“We see the promotion of rice-fish as not just an appropriate technology, but also as a way of supporting small-scale farmers to change and develop their farming system,” says Nick Innes-Taylor, an FAO aquaculture specialist working with farmers in the Lao PDR.
“Raising aquatic animals in their rice fields also helps farmers to realise the benefits that can be gained by regenerating their natural farming environment.”
Bridging the information gap
Despite impressive gains in economic growth over the past decade, the Lao PDR has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in Southeast Asia. One in three children under the age of five suffers from stunting due to malnutrition, especially in remote rural areas.
Experts from DLF and FAO have collaborated with farming communities in five provinces in this landlocked country to bridge the information gap and bring about change.
Over 200 farming families have participated in the project which encouraged poor communities to share information and develop their own strategies for intensifying their rice-fish systems.
The approach is all about focusing on the small things the farmers can do and the importance of building cooperation within their communities. It is a low-risk approach that can produce practical results quickly.
Halwart says, “Farmers in some of the poorest rural communities have been able to increase their annual production of nutritious foods by over 100% within six months. They can also extend the availability of nutritious food throughout the year and reduce the time women and young children spend foraging for food.”
Phantavong cultivates fish, rice and vegetables for his family throughout the year, with a surplus for sale.
“Now my family’s living conditions are much better. We have a good house, we have enough food and we can give our children education.”
The additional supply of nutritious food from existing rice field environments makes an important contribution to national food security and nutrition, with pregnant women and young children benefitting most.
Small steps make a big difference when it comes to sustainable development. With FAO’s support, the government is assisting these communities and expanding rice field diversification practices so that more communities can step up their rice, aquaculture and crop production, so they can earn more and safeguard the environment for the long term.
This article was originally published by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations.
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