The Poor Man’s Fridge.

“Which is more valuable rice or the snails, frogs, other animals and plants that live in the rice paddies?” Nick Innes-Taylor asks when I meet up with him in Vientiane. Surely the rice. He grins, “Nope the fish and aquatic resources are actually MORE economically valuable to the farmers than the actual rice crop – the rice field is the poor man’s fridge.” Such is the latest findings from a team of 250 people working across five provinces with the Lao Government’s Department of Livestock and Fisheries. This is part of a regional project instigated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which also includes the Philippines and Indonesia.

The implications are huge. Land is valued for sale or compensation based on rice yield so including these other resources would increase the value dramatically. Also, times they are always a changing, and in this region at a rapid rate. Migration to the cities coupled with national drives to intensify production and easy access to cheap pesticides and herbicides from China and Thailand, means chemicals are an appealing labour saving device for the dwindling rural population.

Sadly, results are disastrous. Yes, yields rise in the first year as the rice seedlings are pest and weed free, but the soil’s organic matter breaks down rapidly. Because it is no longer replenished the very structure of the soil is lost and in the following years it turns to sand. And it’s not just the pests that die – the fish, crabs and snails also perish causing a loss of crucial protein to the farmers as well as upsetting the food chain. That’s even before looking at what the chemicals actually do to humans when used with scant attention to safety measures and correct dosages.

So what to do? “Everyone here intuitively knows the problem but not how to address it,” Nick tells me. “We need to work out how to manage these paddies and their non-rice yields just a little better so that, for example, instead of 10kg of snails people can harvest 20kg. At the same time the management needs to be low in terms of effort and resources as the farmers don’t have much of either.”

The aim is to improve food security. Malnutrition amongst children and pregnant women is a chronic problem in Laos. A new strategy for nutrition security has just been drawn up by the Lao government and it is hoped the results of the rice paddy study may get incorporated within it. As Nick says, a cross-sectoral action plan with everyone working together would be fantastic, but incredibly hard to achieve. He hopes funding from the EU can be made available to support the implementation of this new strategy and run trials testing different ideas and methods to help farmers increase yields using environmentally sound practises. He laughs, “This work is not just about food security, it also has huge conservation potential – snails, crabs, fish, water plants, insects, – all would benefit.”

To highlight the value of these aquatic animals and weeds to poor communities, local Lao government extension workers have been encouraged to take photos of what people are eating while they survey the villages. It’s been a great success with everyone keen to take and share the photos on social media with their colleagues. The photos show quickly and clearly the huge range of animals and plants that are sourced, used and eaten from paddy fields. Fantastic when pitching a request for money to potential donors!

Nick worked with the Asian Institute for Technology (AIT) before becoming an Advisor for FAO projects in Laos two years ago. He came to South East Asia shortly after finishing university in the UK with a degree in agriculture, fell in love with the area, got involved in fisheries then went back to the UK to do a Masters, before returning to the region to stay. In the 80’s Nick helped AIT developed a fisheries outreach program, when fish farming had just begun in Thailand, funded by British, Swedish and Danish money. In the 90’s the work spread into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Initially heavily research based the need to apply what was being tested and trialled slowly led to much more community involvement and more focus on building the capacity of local authorities and development organizations

Often foreign projects come in to a country for three years, deliver training specific to their own requirements and then leave. The result is that government personnel repeatedly receive training in the same or highly specialised areas and their actual needs and shortfalls are never met. Nick explained how important it is to develop a comprehensive program to ensure local development workers receive the training they need to respond to the needs of their local communities. “So often government extension workers are trained in what other people think they need”. Interestingly, local in-country NGOs, are much more on top of this than government – probably aided by the fact they are smaller, less bureaucratic and directly in charge of the money they receive – once they have it of course….

Lastly Nick tells me about a second project FAO is involved in to facilitate the development of a national strategic implementation plan for fisheries and aquaculture in Laos. As of 2006 and the Paris Declaration every government sector is encouraged to develop their own strategies detailing what is needed and wanted within their sector. A round table process should then take place between donors and government to generate consultation and help improve how aid is carried out by donors and make sure it actually addresses the needs of the country.

Laos has a strategy for the development of the fisheries sector, but it is quite general and offers no clear guidance, especially for development workers at the community level. So with FAO support, and for the first time in their history, the provincial and district levels of government are now working to develop this broad strategy into their own implementation plan. Previously, many of these types of plans had been drafted by foreign consultants flown in from abroad.

“Yes it’s slower this way round, but the result is a strategic plan written in Laos, intelligible to all, and everyone involved has learnt a great deal and are able to reflect on and learn from the process. Also the sense of ownership and achievement everyone feels from doing it themselves is huge, making it much more likely that the plan is used and adhered to,” says Nick.

It’s being seen as a great step that will hopefully begin to equip people with the skills necessary to meet the new challenges to fisheries, agriculture and biodiversity that are blossoming in the region as well as develop pride in their own abilities and style of working. As Nick points out, “Adopting “modern western” methods of best practice may not necessarily be right for Laos. If people are given the chance to develop their own strategies, some traditional ways of doing things have a greater chance of being maintained.”

I leave Nick a happy man, after three long months of hard work, the strategy is fully compiled and he is set to return the following day to his home across the Mekong in Thailand to celebrate Christmas with his family.