The vision of ACIAR is a world where poverty has been reduced and the livelihoods of many improved through more productive and sustainable agriculture emerging from collaborative international research.
ACIAR works towards this vision by sharing Australian expertise in agriculture, fisheries and forestry to build a knowledge base for partner countries to use and build on as they take on the challenges facing smallholder farmers in the Indo-Pacific region.
Since the earliest days of ACIAR, the approach has been to help solve problems in developing countries while at the same time improve the research capacity of collaborating institutions in both the partner country and Australia.
The ultimate objective has been to improve the stability and productivity of the agriculture sector in developing countries, and in doing so contribute to the wellbeing and economic development of their people.
Through strategic research investment and brokering of research partnerships, ACIAR also contributes to the continual development of the Australian agricultural innovation system, connecting Australian scientists to international collaborators and opportunities.
New knowledge and environments for Australian trees
Australian trees are farmed extensively throughout the world, especially in developing countries where some Australian plantation species are preferred to local forest species for fuelwood and manufacturing owing to their rapid growth and adaptability to harsh environments. ACIAR has long invested in the forestry sector of developing countries, brokering research that improves the domestication of Australian trees as a significant component of sustainable forest production systems in Asian economies.
Plantations of fast-growing eucalypt and acacia species meet a substantial part of the world’s growing demand for wood. On recent estimates, eucalypts alone will provide half the global demand for commercial hardwood timber by 2030.
A series of ACIAR-funded forestry projects in the 1980s helped build the eucalypt industry in China, to provide the huge amounts of wood needed by the large and developing nation. Today, China is the second-largest producer of eucalypts in the world, and the scale and success of the industry can be partly attributed to the role of ACIAR in the research.
ACIAR involvement in China started in 1984 when a delegation of ACIAR staff visited China at the invitation of the Chinese Minister for Agriculture, Mr He Kang, and were hosted by the Chinese Academy for Agricultural Science. The aim of the visit was to explore possible collaborative research programs.
The resulting program was developed with the expectations that the ACIAR contribution would be relatively small but with a well-defined focus, and that the research should be catalytic in nature so that the results could have a ‘ripple’ effect with implications for farming systems throughout China.
A high priority for China, which Australia had the capacity to support, was a forestry program to develop access to genetic resources and technology to provide better species for plantations and agroforestry. As a result, ACIAR established two forestry projects:
- trials to determine the most appropriate Australian tree species (mainly eucalypts, acacias and casuarinas) to grow in China
- studies of acacia silviculture, and of purifying tannin extracts from acacias.
The project leaders were from the CSIRO Division of Forestry, and the projects ran from 1985 to 1992 with the support of Chinese research agencies, Australian state agencies, such as the former Queensland Department of Forestry, and Australian universities.
The projects introduced over 100 species, and established 40 hectares of seed orchards and 1,400 hectares of eucalypt research plantations.
Some of the eucalypt varieties and hybrids were suitable for Chinese conditions, and complemented policies of the Chinese government to encourage tree planting and investment in the plantation industry. New eucalypt plantations provided substantial new sources of income for individual farmers and new local employment opportunities. Local infrastructure and facilities also benefited from the expanded industry, through local taxes on eucalypt wood sales or direct company support. Additionally, the projects trained researchers in China and plantation managers to manage the scale, productivity and sustainability of eucalypt plantations.
Research program expands
These initial projects led to a larger ACIAR-funded forestry research program in China, South-East Asia and several countries in Africa built around two projects: ‘Seeds of Australian trees’, from 1993 to 1999, and ‘Domestication of Australian trees for reforestation and agroforestry systems in developing countries’, from 2000 to 2004. The projects were led by the CSIRO Australian Tree Seed Centre, and for a time cooperated in the establishment of the China Eucalypt Research Centre, part of the Chinese Academy of Forestry, based in Zhanjiang, southern Guangdong Province.
The challenge was to help in-country tree breeders set up genetically diverse breeding populations for long-term tree improvement and seed orchards to mass-produce planting stock for growers. CSIRO teams travelled to remote regions of northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia to assemble the seed collections that formed the starting point for breeding and progeny trials for testing hundreds of seed families in many countries.
Capacity building was a vital component of the projects, with frequent advisory visits to countries to provide training in seed collection, handling and seed orchard technology, tree breeding and co-supervision of postgraduate research. In addition, over 200 trainees attended short-term courses on the science of tree domestication. At least 20 former trainees now hold key positions in national agencies concerned with forest genetics and tree breeding. The research collaboration established by the two projects continues through the personal relationships established during the projects.
The progeny trials set up in the 1990s in countries such as India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, form the backbone of today’s advanced breeding programs. Some countries are now in their third generation of breeding these important tree species. Breeding trials identify the best trees, which are then used in seed orchards, and also for controlled pollination to produce inter-specific hybrid varieties. These hybrids must be clonally propagated to produce planting stock for plantations.
With ever-growing attention to disease tolerance, Vietnam’s Academy of Forest Sciences has developed outstanding acacia and eucalypt hybrid varieties as well as the technical infrastructure that gives growers throughout the country access to clonal planting stock at low cost. As with food crop breeding, tree breeding never stops and must continually address new challenges.
Forestry consultant with Salwood Asia Pacific, Mr Stephen Midgley, was project leader for the latter two projects, and is passionate about the legacy of the work.
‘The projects provided the genetic foundations for thriving modern plantation industries which now offer livelihoods and employment to millions of people and products needed by today’s changing society. I am fortunate to enjoy a great many friendships within the global plantation sector based upon a mutual, long-term interest in the role of Australian species. I derive a great deal of pride from the useful contribution eucalypts, acacias and casuarinas make to local livelihoods and industry. This represents a uniquely Australian contribution to local development and a lasting, meaningful legacy for projects such as the ACIAR Australian tree projects.
‘The last 40 years has seen a fascinating evolution in the way people view forests and trees and the way in which wood is used. And that’s going to continue – contemporary societies need wood as much as ever. Wood production needs to have the same scientific backup as food production. So, there’s going to be a very, very strong rationale for ongoing ACIAR-supported input.’
Protecting giant clams and livelihoods
Giant clams are an important and rich source of protein in the diets of people throughout the Indo-Pacific region, and potentially a source of income in export and tourism markets. Giant clams also play an important role in the health of the marine ecosystem. In the 1980s, increasing human population pressure and pollution, habitat destruction and poaching had severely reduced giant clam stocks.
Giant clams were the focus of the first fisheries projects commissioned by ACIAR. In 1984, James Cook University led the first project ‘Culture of the giant clam (Tridacna sp.) for food and restocking of tropical reefs’, with research partners from the Philippines and Fiji, and other Australian organisations. For 25 years, ACIAR invested A$4 million in eight projects and worked with fisheries scientists in Fiji and the Philippines, as well as Cook Islands, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu.
A risk of agricultural research for development, where the impacts may take many years or even decades to be realised, is that the original context of the research will change, potentially making the aims and objectives of the research unachievable.
Economic studies in the early 1990s showed that the production of giant clams for the meat market was unlikely to be economically viable. The aquarium market, which sought smaller, brighter and faster-growing species, was developing and providing producers with a shorter time frame for production and returns.
While the economic impacts of the research were not realised, there were ongoing benefits in terms of new knowledge and increased capacity of in-country scientists. The skills acquired by in-country scientists were easily and fruitfully transferred to other mariculture enterprises.
Changes to government policy
In the Philippines, the effect of changing market conditions was compounded by a change in government policy. The research encountered a major setback when the Philippines Government banned export of all giant clams in 1996. Initially, the research had focused on Tridacna derasa, a species well suited to the aquaculture market. In the mid-1990s, the researchers switched their focus to the almost extinct species, Tridacna gigas, and to restocking the reefs around the country with the species.
While the export ban was viewed as a setback, time and opportunity proved otherwise. In the early 2000s, Professor Edgardo Gomez, the Philippines project leader in the early projects of the program, was awarded a fellowship by the Pew Foundation that came with a generous grant. He immediately deployed his grant to assist the aquaculture and restocking program at the University of the Philippines. By 2006 more than 70,000 giant clams had been restored to the reefs around the country.
The ACIAR project helped lay the groundwork for the establishment of one of the leading coral reef research centres in the Pacific region – the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines, and its Marine Laboratory at Bolinao, where a new generation of marine biologists were taught and mentored by Professor Gomez. Young giant clams remained in high demand across the country by coastal communities, who attest to healthier marine ecosystems where giant clams live, and by resorts, where clams are a tourist drawcard.
Given the near-extinct status of the species before ACIAR projects, the sustained populations of this species demonstrate an impressive conservation achievement by Philippines staff, and ACIAR projects can be attributed an early catalytic role
in this achievement.
Civil unrest disrupts science
In Solomon Islands, farmer training and uptake of the village-based grow-out trials of clams for the aquarium market were disrupted by the escalation of political tensions in the country during the late 1990s. This hindered long-term economic opportunities due to the abrupt closure of the Honiara hatchery, making seed inaccessible to farmers. Coupled with displacement, insecurity and lack of buyers at the time, the giant clam industry stopped for approximately five years in the country.
Despite the lack of long-term economic benefits in Solomon Islands, capacity and skills development in local staff were high, and ongoing working relationships were established. The story of Mr Cletus Oengpepa is testament to the ongoing benefits of ACIAR project partnerships. Mr Oengpepa started his career as an aquaculture technical assistant at the WorldFish Center (previously the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management) near Honiara. Supported by ACIAR he attained a Master of Aquaculture at Deakin University in 1999. As his career progressed, he became station manager at the Nusatupe WorldFish research station in the Western Province of Solomon Islands.
When the Honiara hatchery was taken over by rebels in the late 1990s, Mr Oengpepa, at extreme personal risk, saved much of the equipment and some giant clam broodstock by arranging their transfer to the Western Province. Over several decades Mr Oengpepa has mentored and developed the skills of farmers and WorldFish staff and advised on regional developments on giant clam and other marine conservation and production efforts.
An impact assessment of four of the giant clam projects, which focused on benefits in the Philippines and Solomon Islands, showed little economic benefit from the ACIAR investment in giant clam. However, the projects were a great success in terms of conservation, and scientific and technical advances. Giant clams have been labelled ‘iconic’ in both countries and the research contributed to a cultural legacy.
Through the projects, ACIAR supported the development of key institutions and individuals in partner countries. The knowledge generated throughout the projects continues to be used and remains a foundational base for giant clam biology and mariculture decades later.
Knowledge from the project was extended through the publication of eight highly acclaimed books and manuals, 30 journal articles and five master and PhD theses – as well as many conference papers, reports and book chapters.
As the first major fisheries investments for ACIAR, the giant clam projects can claim a legacy in the Indo-Pacific region. The knowledge and capacity built in regional institutions were able to be adapted to new conservation objectives, marine-based research or commodities. As research and market interest grew in sea cucumbers and pearl oysters, those skilled in giant clam mariculture transferred their techniques and experience and diversified their opportunities. There continues to be a place for the credible and salient information that ACIAR produced.