Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Agroforestry systems offer benefits to Lao farmers

For the past eight years, ACIAR has been conducting research into the development of teak-based agroforestry systems in northern Laos. While agroforestry research is inherently a long term proposition, it is becoming evident that this ACIAR research in Laos is already generating benefits for farmers and that recent new research on the incorporation of broom grass into the agroforestry system has great potential to enhance the outcomes for women. After years of methodical research on thinning and spacing of teak plantings and discussions with farmers, the project has developed an innovative teak agroforestry system that is much better suited to farmer needs and more likely to yield high returns than the current approach to teak planting.

7.5 year old wide spaced teak at NAFC
Under the current system farmers have traditionally planted over 2000 trees per hectare and then only been able to grow crops between the trees for the first few years. In the new system the trees are planted in paired rows along the contour and then a spacing of 10-15 metres is left between the next paired row of teak, in which the farmers can continue to grow their crops as the trees grow. This approach results in 650-900 teak trees being planted per hectare which better matches the results from spacing trails that shows best growth is achieved when 600-800 trees per hectare are planted. The spacing research trials indicate that it should be possible to have the teak reach the smallest commercial size for teak logs by age 10-12 year. Whereas in other trials using the current teak planting regime, even when a 30% of basal area thinning has been applied at age 9, there are still no trees having reached commercial size at age 15.


15 year old thinned teak at Ban Densavang
The 68 farmer households from 21 villages who are participating in the new agroforestry trials are also benefiting from the use of improved quality teak seedlings generated through the ACIAR led teak tree breeding program. After working with the farmers in previous trials the project team has changed its teak management system to better match farmer needs. Rather than recommending specific ages where the teak should be thinned and pruned they now encourage the farmers to do a bit of silviculture every time they are tending their crops.

Female teak grower and family at Ban Densavang
In northern Laos women and children spend 3 months of the year collecting broom grass heads from forested areas which are then dried and sold into markets in Vietnam, China and Laos. The current ACIAR project (FST/2012/041) is conducting research on the natural variability of broom grass and the prospects for incorporating this non-timber forest product into the teak agroforestry system. The project team has made 114 collections of broom grass from nine locations in northern Laos and 90 of these have been planted out in a trial at the Northern Agriculture and Forestry College near Luang Prabang. These plantings display significant variation in terms of the length and weight of the inflorescences – which determines the price that the women receive . The project team has also gathered data on broom grass harvesting and marketing from 9 sites over the 3 month collection period. It found that there are significant differentials (3-4 times) between prices paid for poorer and better quality broom grass inflorescences. These two research activities suggest that, through the selection and breeding broom grass, there is good potential to improve the quality (and hence value) of broom grass material that could be grown in teak-NTFP agroforestry systems. 

Woman collecting broom grass

Brooms for sale in Luang Prabang

By Tony Bartlett,ACIAR Forestry Research Program Manager

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