The role of agroforestry in swidden transitions: a case study in the context of customary land tenure in Central Lao PDR

Abstract

Agroforestry has been promoted as a promising model of rural development in Lao PDR (Laos), where much upland land use is in transition. Relatively little is known about the contributions of agroforestry systems to Lao farmers’ livelihoods, how these systems compare to alternatives, or the extent to which they might contribute to the national policy objective of replacing swidden agriculture. The consequences of customary land tenure for such transitions in Laos are also poorly understood. We investigated independent adoption by farmers in a Central Lao village of an agroforestry system that combines ‘yang bong’ (Persea kurzii) trees on 7-year rotations with intercrops of rice and bananas. The returns to land from this agroforestry system were more financially rewarding for farming households than swidden cultivation, demonstrating that farmers can develop land use intensification pathways that replace swidden cultivation. However, case study farmers anticipated further expansion of banana monocrops rather of agroforestry systems. In addition, the adoption of the agroforestry system has fostered wealth differentiation in the case study village, reflecting both prior and emerging inequities in the customary land tenure system. Our results indicate that it is important to closely understand the institutional and livelihood contexts of agroforestry systems, to better appreciate their role and potential in supporting sustainable land use transitions. In this case study, the intersection of customary land use practices, national policy goals and land allocation policies, new market opportunities, and farmers’ dynamic livelihood strategies, both define and constrain the contribution of agroforestry to land use transitions.

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Fig. 1
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(Source: DONRE, 2012); total village 933.7 ha

Fig. 3
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Fig. 5

Source: DONRE 2012, field surveys 2016

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Fig. 7

Notes

  1. 1.

    The term ‘plot’ is widely used in Laos to refer to a parcel of land allocated to or used by a smallholder farmer (see Ducourtieux et al. 2005; Friis and Nielsen 2016; Kenney-Lazar 2012).

  2. 2.

    Hereafter we use the term ‘own’ to recognise that this claim is generally not challenged within the village.

  3. 3.

    Chap chong rules are both varied and contested across and within communities in Laos.

  4. 4.

    We note similarities of chap chong in Laos with customary land rights in Malaysia, as reported by Cramb and Wills (1990).

  5. 5.

    Phimmavong et al. (2019) report returns for plantation companies in which smallholders provided labour.

  6. 6.

    ‘Bong’ bark is harvested from a number of tree species in Laos, and common names may refer to several species: e.g. ‘yang bong’ is also harvested from Nothalphoebe umbellifiora. Trees are grown primarily for their aromatic bark (viz. polyphenolic lignin), which is processed into incense sticks.

  7. 7.

    Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Project ADP/2014/047, which investigated different models of tree plantation development in Laos (see van der Meer Simo et al. 2020).

  8. 8.

    The mean household income of “poor”, “middle” and “wealthier” households was US$3169, $6285 and $9408 respectively (2016 data).

  9. 9.

    Following Sjaastad et al. (2005), ‘environmental income’ is defined as “rent captured through alienation or consumption of natural capital within the first link in a market chain” (p 45). See also van der Meer Simo et al. (2019).

  10. 10.

    The absolute annual household environmental income (cash and subsistence) estimated in this study was within the range of that calculated in three other villages in Laos that were sampled in different periods throughout the year (van der Meer Simo et al. 2019). The proportion of annual household income derived as ‘environmental income’ (24%) is consistent with that reported by Angelsen et al. (2014), who found environmental income accounted for 22% of the total income of rural Asian households.

  11. 11.

    A Prime Minister’s Order in 2016 suspended banana plantation expansion in Laos due to reported negative impacts on farmers’ health and the environment. The focus of this Order is on northern Lao provinces. Banana plantations in Southern provinces for export to Thailand and Vietnam do not appear to have been impacted by this ban (Vientiane Times 2019).

  12. 12.

    The equivalent NPV per ha after 7 years at 12% discount rate is $ 1018.

  13. 13.

    Four other households of the 25 sampled in total reported earnings from the illegal timber trade; these ranged from $2219 to $9122. Because these households are not among the 13 from whom environmental income data was collected, these values are not included in this analysis. These results provide an estimate of the likely range of households’ income from the illegal timber trade, including for households that did not report it.

  14. 14.

    In contrast to reports from Northern Laos about the adverse environmental and health impacts of chemical use in banana plantations (Friis and Nielsen 2016), case study informants did not report any concerns about the use of chemicals.

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van der Meer Simo, A., Kanowski, P. & Barney, K. The role of agroforestry in swidden transitions: a case study in the context of customary land tenure in Central Lao PDR. Agroforest Syst (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10457-020-00515-4

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Keywords

  • Agroforestry
  • Land-use intensification
  • Laos
  • Livelihoods
  • Persea kurzii
  • Swidden