Growing cassava is a way of life for many of the ethnic minority communities living in Sơn La Province.
An ACIAR project is working with these smallholder farmers to grow cassava more sustainably and gain greater prices for their produce by accessing larger markets.
Run by the University of Queensland and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) since 2016, the project forms part of a wider agribusiness and agricultural systems management initiative across four countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, Lao and Cambodia.
‘We’re linking small farmers with larger processes and international markets to help improve their livelihoods,’ says Dominic Smith, Project Leader from the University of Queensland.
‘In all of the communes that we work in within Sơn La, cassava is grown on extremely sloping land,’ he says. ‘If you keep growing monoculture cassava on slopes like that without any effort to control soil erosion and without any effort to replenish fertility, the soils will lose fertility and they will erode—a very bad environmental outcome.’
In an effort to avoid such detrimental conditions, project researchers are testing new farming techniques across four communities in Sơn La Province.
‘Conservation agriculture is one of the core principles that we are looking at in this project,’ says Smith, ‘…specifically, we are looking at intercropping and contour farming as well. We can see a vision for the future where cassava is part of an integrated system that can be a much more sustainable path out of poverty.’
Living in mountainous and highland areas, sloping terrain limits what local farmers can grow. This challenging environment has seen many smallholders choose cassava, a robust, woody shrub not requiring extensive care or irrigation.
As the most traded starch globally, cassava is also vital throughout Southeast Asia in meeting demand for animal feed, starch products, and biofuel; a key commodity for improving rural livelihoods and wider regional economic development. With over 500,000 hectares generating over US$1 billion in export earnings, Vietnam is the second largest exporter of cassava products in the world.
Despite market lows of US$315 per tonne in late 2016, traded value has risen, surpassing early 2015 levels of around US$435 per tonne to US$475 per tonne.
These conditions make cassava a profitable livelihood opportunity well suited to resource-poor farmers living in marginal upland areas—provided it is managed sustainably and farmers are sufficiently linked to both input and output markets.
'The first time I visited Chieng Chan commune…one year ago I saw a lot of problems regarding their farming,’ says Phan Huy Chuong, an in-country researcher from the Northern Mountainous Agriculture & Forestry Science Institute (NOMAFSI) working on the project.
For many farmers, the repetitive process of growing cassava year after year had caused soil erosion, reducing soil fertility and therefore productivity. This was exacerbated by declining prices in 2016. While well-off farmers diversified into other crops such as coffee, cashews and pepper, poorer farmers continued with cassava, further impacting the soil, overall production and income.
‘I have been growing cassava for seven to eight years,’ says Luong Van Nguyen, a local cassava farmer in Sơn La Province. ‘In the past, the cassava price was not good and it took more labour and effort to grow cassava,’ he says.
‘Mr Chuong [from NOMFSI and through the ACIAR project] taught me totally different farming methods compared to what we had done in the past years. Specifically we have made larger gaps between the cassava lines and we have used a mix of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilisers,’ he says.
The impact from these simple changes, coupled with the rising trade value and access to international markets, has seen Nguyen and his family benefit greatly.
‘This season, I have sold two tonnes of cassava harvested from one of my cassava hills for more than three million dong [AUD$170],’ says Nguyen. ‘In general, the selling price is higher and we got more money.’
Mr Chuong from NOMAFSI is excited to see the sustainable farming methods positively impacting the local community.
‘The first smallholders to apply the new techniques are the innovation-oriented [and] I am very glad to support such smallholders,’ says Chuong. ‘Now they will spread the model to their wider community.’
‘I feel personally thankful to ACIAR, the Australian Government and the Australian people for supporting the Vietnamese farmers,’ he says.
The project is scheduled to run until the end of 2019.
Photos and video courtesy of Conor Ashleigh.