Lemons and sweet bamboo may not be associated with frontline efforts to adapt to climate change in most parts of the world, but in Kioutaloun village in northern Laos, rice farmers hit by landslides, land erosion and severe flooding are looking to different crops.
“When the farmer starts planting upland rice he needs rain for fast growth. If there is no rain within a month, then it’s not good,” said Ki Her, head of Kioutaloun village, where mostly the Hmong ethnic group live.
Khamphone Mounlamai, of the National Agricultural Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, told IRIN that the villagers are noticing shorter, but more intense rainy seasons, followed by longer dry seasons.
Rice has long been the country’s most important crop, with some 95 percent of the population in the north growing it. After an unusually heavy monsoon season flooded the Mekong River Basin, especially in the central and southern areas, national rice production in 2011 is estimated at three million tons, some 4 percent below the bumper season in 2010.
Rice production is on the rebound this year but farmers are struggling to figure out when is the best time to plant. Three-quarters of Laotians live in rural areas, and half of the children under five years old in rural areas lack life-saving nutrients, also known as chronic malnutrition.
Tai On and his family started planting alternative crops on their farm in Kioutaloun after a trip to Thailand three years ago, where he saw farmers earning money from lemons. He now has a lemon orchard on more than half his land. “The lemon trees now have fruit all year round. I use the lemons for cooking and to sell at the market,” he said.
He can get 25 US cents per kilogramme for his lemons during the rainy season and three times as much in the dry season, when lemon production in the lowlands drops. Farmers in the village have begun to buy lemon seedlings from Tai On. He is also planting sweet bamboo, which he discovered grows easily, prevents soil erosion and, like lemons, can be sold at the market all year round.
Manfred Staab of UN Development Programme (UNDP), who is advising NAFRI on a four-year programme to improve the resilience of the agriculture sector to climate change, says crop diversification is the key to countering erratic rains. “If you have more options than one, then, if something happens to you, you are not as easily derailed from your main source of income, or your food security is not as easily in danger.”
The Kioutaloun community, along with three other villages, received US$50,000 in 2011 from the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, implemented by UNDP, to plant non-rice crops to cope with changing weather patterns.
A report by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in June 2012 highlighted the importance of traditional knowledge in helping communities cope with climate change.
The project in Kioutaloun is looking into the beneficial exploitation of local knowledge about household crops like lemons and sweet bamboo, because in recent years villagers have often found them to be more profitable and reliable than rice.