Smallholder Upland Farmers in Laos

Improving the livelihoods of smallholder upland farmers in Laos and Cambodia through improved and integrated cassava-based cropping and livestock systems is a priority project of The Nippon Foundation. To this end, the foundation is funding a cassava research project implemented by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, its Spanish acronym) in Asia.

Cassava is currently the third most important crop in Laos, after rice and maize. It is widely grown throughout the country by upland farmers, but up until recently it has been grown in small areas using local varieties and with very few inputs. The roots are used mainly for human consumption and for feeding livestock, especially pigs. Young shoots are also harvested for human consumption.

Livestock are a vital safety net for vulnerable upland farmers in Indochina. Feed shortages are a common and major constraint to improving these livestock systems, but recent research in the region has demonstrated that dried cassava roots and leaves can overcome this problem, as a feed supplement for pigs, cattle, fish and poultry.

This cassava project enlists local farmers' participation in the evaluation, development and dissemination of new varieties, improved production practices and more efficient animal feeding practices--something that will increase yields and income for upland farmers. work commenced in Laos in April 2004 and expanded to Cambodia in 2005. By growing cassava to feed their animals, the farmers are discovering a new source of cash income. Any strategy to assist these poor farmers has to tackle the issue at several levels: the stimulation of growth in agricultural productivity, the raising of incomes, and the conservation of environmental resources.

Increasing population pressure in upland areas of Laos has resulted in such environmental changes as deforestation and increased soil erosion. This has meant a loss of soil fertility, increased weed pressure, and lower yields for the already poor rice farmers.

CIAT has been working to address these issues for nearly 20 years. Through its programs, cassava farmers in Laos and Southeast Asia are conducting research to control erosion on their tiny hillside farms in a project funded by the Nippon Foundation in partnership with international and national scientists. The farmers test and refine new technologies in their own fields. The project provides accessible techniques and technical guidance that enable farmers to reduce erosion while intensifying cassava production.

Cassava, which thrives under difficult conditions, is one of the few crops that can be cultivated on the marginal hillsides. Its starchy root was a staple food during the war years in Vietnam and China-as it is now in many drought or war stricken areas of Africa. "Cassava production in Asia has almost doubled in the last twenty years," says Reinhardt Howeler of the CIAT Cassava Office for Asia, based in Bangkok. "It is now the third most important food crop here. Even so, since many people associate cassava with hard times, they eat less of it--but continue producing it for on-farm feeding of pigs or for the starch and animal feed industries. In fact, cassava is the principal source of income for some of the poorest Asian farmers; nothing else will grow in their dry, infertile soil."

The Nippon Foundation has also funded similar cassava projects in China, Thailand, and Vietnam: use of cassava roots and leaves for animal feeding, the latest developments in cassava processing into starch and many starch-derived products, as well as the development of cassava growth models.

Domestic and international starch manufacturers are requiring increased supplies of cassava roots. Cassava starch is a base for modern manufacturing of pharmaceutical products, sweeteners, and flavoring agents such as monosodium glutamate. It is also used in the production of biodegradable plastics. Japan imports about 200,000 metric tons of processed cassava yearly.

Rising demand offers farmers a compelling incentive to adopt the improved varieties they are testing under the Nippon Foundation-funded project. In addition to increasing yield, these varieties grow more quickly, thus establishing ground cover earlier to protect the soil from erosion by wind and rain.

Cassava is also used as a raw material for industrial goods such as plywood. It is one of the highest-yielding starch-producing crops in the world, with a yield greater than rice or corn and second only to sugar cane. Because of this, and because producing starch from cassava is relatively cheap, it is now being eyed as a biomass source for fuel production. Given the current high oil prices, and with many countries moving to increase biofuel use, this is a significant development. Understanding the cassava genome will help to develop the plant to this purpose as well.

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