The Luk Khay Niaow in the Face of Challenging Times for Rice
Luk Khao Niaow or descendants of the sticky rice. This is how the people of Laos refer to themselves, and fittingly so because of the great significance of rice to their way of life.
Rice is the main staple food for every Laotian household. It is also one of the country’s primary economic drivers as majority of its population are into rice production. As with its Southeast Asian neighbors, Laos is primarily an agricultural country. Sixty percent of its agricultural lands (890,000 hectares) is devoted to rice farming. However, production remains primarily at subsistence level. Ninety percent of produce is allotted for household consumption and the remaining 10% is either collected as seed or sold to other members of the community.
Ironically, findings of various international organizations show that 50% of the country’s population suffer from malnutrition and that rice supply among poor households is good only for seven months; thus, the need to ration in order to “stretch” the supply to last the year.
This situation is in stark contrast with government reports of increasing rice production and rice sufficiency (first achieved in 1999). A reason for this discrepancy is the country’s rapid rate of population growth: Laos’ is one of the highest in the region. Consumption is increasing but rice production is not sufficient to meet the demand.
The country’s rice production per hectare is comparable with that of other countries in the peninsular part of Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma), but the country also has one of the lowest production in the region. This general situation in rice production is more or less reflective of the situation of rice production and farmers at the community level. In the Phonengam and Hatdai Villages of Parklai District, Sayabouly Province, 80% of rice production is earmarked for consumption. The remaining 20% is for selling and planting for the next cropping season.
LAOS TOPOGRAPHY AND EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Beginning in the 1990s, climate patterns were observed to have changed, with drought coupled with pest infestation becoming a regular occurrence. Over the years, precipitation has become lesser with the dry periods becoming longer and hotter. Add to this the drying up of the already limited water sources including available irrigation facilities.
Multiple hazards also affect agricultural production in the villages of Nasong and Phiangta in Thathom District, Xiengkhouang Province. Floods and landslides cause 30-80% crop losses for rice farmers while pests and diseases can cause up to 75% crop losses for rice and 100% loss for other crops like corn. There are also instances of food shortage that sometimes last for four months. Floods occur nearly three times a year, and pest infestation happen yearly. Phiangta Village is also prone to drought; thus, farmers would prefer to plant drought-resistant crops since, even though floods usually last for only three days, water sources are scarce during dry and high temperature periods.
For villages near the Mekong River Delta, the intrusion of saltwater is another factor that affects the farmers and their crops. Saltwater adversely affects roots of rice crops, impacting on the growth and flowering stages. This is experienced by farmers from the Bark Village in Champhone District, Savannakhet Province.
As a mitigating measure, farmers apply lime, rice hull, and water over the soil. This measure, however, only lessens the salinity to a certain extent. Losses are still incurred. This is on top of the drought that regularly affects the area and other villages like Nakathang Village.
Nakathang Village has at least a total rice land area of 346 hectares. However, 83% of these are prone to droughts and floods, and only 50 hectares are able to produce during the dry season. Floods last for at least two weeks in most areas. In the two villages, irregular and low rainfall occurs, thus amplifying further the already negative effects of declining water sources during the dry season that eventually leads to prolonged periods of drought.
Climate observations and projections for the three provinces mentioned show an increase in amount of rainfall in the coming years. However, present patterns indicate that 93% of rainfall happens during the wet season but 60% of these are concentrated on just the first few months of the season; thus, water becomes scarce during critical stages of plant growth and more especially during the dry season.
The topography and general landscape of Laos is mountainous and the country prides itself of a thick forest cover. However, forests are being denuded and forest covers are declining due to both illegal and legal deforestation activities.
The loss of natural habitat and food source force wildlife species to look for other food sources and habitats with rice farms among the viable alternative. Pests proliferate because their natural predators are either gone or have decreased in number.
Moreover, deforestation cause soil to erode during periods of strong rains, which eventually results in siltation of water systems downstream. Forest protection activities therefore need to be in place.
THE INTRODUCTION OF MODERN RICE VARIETIES
It was also in the 1990s that modern rice varieties were introduced into the country. The high-yielding characteristics of modern varieties prompted the shift to modern rice varieties. The shift, however, necessitated the use of chemical inputs that were previously not part of the farming practice.
Prior to the 1990’s, varieties planted were entirely traditional varieties. Farmers observed that traditional varieties are generally high-yielding with noted resistance to various climate factors.
Although there are still plenty of traditional rice varieties, they are not being developed to become more climate resilient and high-yielding because of the promotion of modern varieties. The resilience of the traditional varieties have long been proven as these have undergone the natural evolution process of adapting to different ecological conditions with the aid of the farmers’ collection and conservation practices.
Having diverse gene characteristics, traditional varieties are more viable options for climate change adaptation rather than the modern varieties whose characteristics are uniform. Instead therefore of having the farmers shift to modern varieties, it would be better to provide capacity-building support to improve and broaden the farmers’ knowledge and skills on on-farm plant breeding, sustainable agriculture, and seed conservation at the farm level.
The development and utilization of traditional varieties will limit and possibly eradicate the need for crop loan facilities, thus contribute to increasing farmers’ income. Interventions should therefore be done.
Extension of services and installation of critical facilities such as irrigation systems and post-harvest facilities for drying, milling, and on-farm storage to be collectively managed by the farmers themselves;
Development of sustainable alternative livelihood sources to allow farmers to cope with possible losses from crop production and improve their purchasing capacity;
Land reform through land distribution to ensure proper and appropriate land use and management;
Development of mechanisms for soil conservation such as conversion of biomass into organic fertilizers and integrated farming or intercropping, and farmers’ training to capacitate them to use these mechanisms. Due to the limited total land area distributed per family for upland farming, the fallow periods for cultivated lands are very short, negatively affecting soil fertility and eventually productivity. The very rapid cycle for swidden farms limits the time for the natural regeneration and recovery of the forest portions converted to farm plots.
Development of policies for the recognition of farmers’ rights over the plant genetic resources based simply on their historical and continuing role in the conservation of such genetic resources. These policies should put in place mechanisms to give back to farmers for their ecological services. The rice genetic resources present in gene banks and research institutions then and today are collections made from those that were originally propagated by farmers through their production and conservation practice. Sovereign rights over genetic resources are accorded to nations from where such are collected. Such rights, however, are not extended to farmers. Getting certification of ownership to plant genetic resources is difficult, with the various processes and requirements they need to comply with.
1. Strategic Partnership with Farmer Innovators for Adaptation and Management of Plant Genetic Resources to Climate Change . Report: Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), Strategic Action Plans (SAPs), and Baseline Survey in Lao PDR. SEARICE; Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Lao PDR
[This publication has been produced with the assistance of the International Treaty. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the International Treaty.]