A study in Land Use Policy explores the consequences policies that attempt to balance the needs of conservation and development. It looks at the perspectives of farmers in Laos who switched from cultivating shifting rice to hybrid maize as a consequence of one such policy push. Photo: R. Cole

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How green is green economic development?

Poor farmers in the forested uplands of Laos provide a reality check on a much embraced concept

Story highlights

  • Authors asked Laotian farmers what had made them first adopt and then abandon hybrid maize, a cash crop that had received policy and market support
  • Cash crops go through boom bust cycles that poor farmers often bear the brunt of
  • When applying green economic policies, which have been in vogue in low-income countries over the past decade, implementers must be cautious of the social, economic and environmental context

Agriculture is a big contributor to deforestation. Rural populations use forest resources and cut down forests to meet subsistence and livelihood needs. In other instances, commercial agriculturalists clear vast swathes of forests often with the implicit backing of governments.

Over the past decade, governments of developing countries have instituted ‘green economy policies’ in an attempt to balance the needs of conservation and development. In a recent article published in the Land Use Policy, researchers explore the implication of such policies by studying the perspectives of farmers who switched from cultivating shifting rice to hybrid maize as a consequence of one such policy push by the government of Laos. By interviewing farmers in 2013, when they were increasingly growing maize, and then again in 2016, when many of the same farmers were abandoning maize, researchers shed light on how ‘green’ such policies actually are.

The article titled ‘The colour of Maize: Visions of green growth and farmers perceptions in northern Laos’ was a collaborative effort between centre researcher Grace Wong and researchers from the University of Helsinki, Center for International Forestry Research – Indonesia and the National University of Singapore. Maarit H. Kallio from the University of Helsinki was the lead author.

The focus on growth has led to green economy being widely embraced, however these assumptions are still largely at the stage of rhetoric rather than actual implementation of transformative policies, or action on the ground.

Lead Author, Maarit H. Kallio

Doing green development

The UN defines green economy as one that “aims to improve human wellbeing and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”. The underlying assumption, that some social-scientists find problematic, is that environmental sustainability and economic development can peacefully co-exist. As farmers’ experiences in the study reveal, this is often far from the truth of what unfolds on the ground.

Policy frameworks e.g. ‘Agricultural Development Strategy 2011-2020’ instituted by the government of Laos promoted “more intensive and/or commercial agricultural systems” with the stated aims of reducing poverty, improving tax revenues, controlling land and forest use and resettling forest peoples close to roads and public services. The unstated aim was to discourage farmers from practicing shifting (also called swidden) cultivation common to the region.

For the region’s cash-strapped farmers, increased cash income from maize was a big motivation to switch from shifting rice cultivation. Maize was also less labour intensive to farm and could grow on poorer quality soil as compared to rice. All these factors when backed by the government’s policy and market infrastructure meant that in 2013 many farmers in the case-study villages were adopting maize as a mono-culture crop. Rice was still being grown in smaller plots as it is the region’s staple food.

Map showing the study area and the NEPL-NPA in the district of Xone, Huaphan Province, northern Laos. Click on image to access publication

Not so green after all

However, when the researchers went back in 2016, they found that these same factors e.g. exposure to global markets (and associated price volatility) and practicing mono-cropping had induced greater economic and environmental uncertainty. Farmers cited poor harvest levels and crop failures, which traders refused to safeguard them from. This intensified farmer debts and dependencies on external agencies. Additionally, biodiversity suffered as “traditional swidden landscape previously provided fallow of different ages, which were associated with a larger range of species diversity”.

“Socially, maize expansion was shown to increase household differentiation, risks, dependencies on traders, debts and food insecurity of some farmers,” co-author Grace Wong explains.

Farmers had growing awareness that maize was ill-suited to sustainable land-use, but they had little alternatives for income generation especially as shifting cultivation had been restricted by government policy.

A delicate balance

Wong and her colleagues point out that while context matters, their findings show a disconnect between the reality on the ground and the aims of Green Development strategy in terms of achieving holistic goals of livelihood security, inclusiveness and environmental sustainability.

Maize particularly compromised the health of natural and social capital that are often the explicit goals of green economy policies. The researchers suggest instead policies that support sustainable agriculture practices and integrate cash crops into diverse systems e.g. shifting cultivation and long rotation. In addition, development schemes such as crop insurance and soil conservation can safeguard against environmental risks. These together can enhance “food security”, “cultural wellbeing” and create more resilient landscapes. Importantly, acknowledging the complexities underpinning green economy can help governments design policies that strike a cautious balance between conservation and development.

“By providing a local perspective, this study encourages a critical reflection on the underlying assumptions and conceptualization of the green economy approach in Laos, and argues for policies and measures that consider a more holistic perspective of human wellbeing and the environment,” Grace Wong concludes.

Read the entire study here

Published: 2019-06-03

Related info

Kallio, M.H., Hogarth, N.J., Moeliono, M., Brockhaus, M., Cole, R., Bong, I.W., Wong, G.Y. 2019. The colour of maize: Visions of green growth and farmers perceptions in northern Laos. Land Use Policy, 80: 185-194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2018.10.006.

Link to publication

Grace Wong’s work has largely converged on assessing social, economic and ecological trade-offs in tropical environments, focusing in particular on the interface of development, socio-political processes and environmental change.


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