ENVIRONMENT: Sustainable land management is key to combat degradation

The Mekong Delta, situated in the South of Vietnam, is one of the biggest and most fertile deltas in Southeast Asia.  The region provides 50% of the country’s rice production, of which 90% are exported to other countries.

The Lonely Planet described it as the “rice bowl of Vietnam.”  It said: “The delta is carpeted in a dizzying variety of greens. It’s a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong (River), where boats, houses and markets float upon the innumerable rivers, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape like arteries. The bustling commerce of its towns contrasts sharply with the languid, almost-soporific pace of life in the countryside.”

The Mekong River is the main source of water used for irrigation and household needs.  Some people do fishing in the river.  As it is home to floating markets, the river is also one of the region’s tourist attractions.

About 31.5% of Mekong Delta’s soil is considered as alluvial as they have a silt-clay to clay texture.  Because of the delta’s flat area, the soil is poorly drained.  That can be both an asset or a liability.

However, the single cropping of rice or low investment in crop diversification, imbalanced fertilizer application, changing land use, and increasing mechanization have resulted to land degradation causing crop yield losses.

It is for this reason why a team of researches has identified it as one of the three study sites of a study to find the constraining and facilitating factors on adoption of sustainable land management (SLM) practices in the country.

The said study, a collaborative effort of the ELD (Economics of Land Degradation) Initiative and Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA), was conducted by Mau Dung Nguyen, head of the Hanoi University of Agriculture’s Department of Economics and Rural Development.

Aside from the Mekong Delta, the two other study sites were the northwest mountain region which is undergoing serious and extensive human-induced land degradation and the coastal region which also suffer from land degradation due to long dry seasons and short but heavy rainfalls.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has identified SLM as one way to mitigate environmental damage caused by land degradation.  SLM practices “help close yield gaps and enhance resilience of land resources and communities that directly depend on them while avoiding further degradation.”

In the Mekong Delta, the government introduced the crop restructuring program where areas grown with rice are planted to upland crops like corn and mung beans. “The model of rice then upland crop and then rice was shown to result in soil quality improvement and thus can be considered as the SLM model in the region,” wrote Prof. Mau Dung.

In the northwest mountain region, several SLM practices have been introduced.  But the most appropriate technology identified was the agroforestry model of cash crop rotated with beans.  “(The model) can reduce soil erosion, contribute to environmental improvements and ensure food self-sufficiency for the farmers,” Prof. Mau Dung wrote.

In the coastal region, crop diversification has been proven to prevent land degradation in the areas affected with soil salinization and land erosion.

Interestingly, most farmers (82.7%) who were included in the study said they were aware of the problem of land degradation in their farms.  But perceptions among the three regions differ.

“While most farmers in the mountainous and coastal regions (82.7% and 100% respectively), only one-third (30%) of farmers in Mekong delta believed so,” Prof. Mau Dung reported.

Most farmers also identified “decline in land fertility” as an indicator of land degradation.  “Around 80% of the farmers surveyed agreed that crop yield reduction was one of the indicators reflecting land degradation and 12.8% thought this was the most important indicator,” Prof Mau Dung reported.

The farmers surveyed in the study listed the following as the causes of land degradation in their farms: inappropriate farming techniques (more than 80%), and overuse of chemicals (around 80%), lack of knowledge (more than 70%).  In the mountainous region, the most important reason was deforestation (94.5%).

The study found out also that income was one of the most important factors considered when adopting SLM practices.  “Our analysis show that high income households appear to adopt SLM more than low and medium income households,” Prof. Mau Dung wrote.  “While 61.2% of the high income adopted SLM, only 46%-48% of the medium and low income households did so.”

In his study, Prof. Mau Dung urged that support services be provided.  “Agricultural credit and training and extension services are essential to enable farmers to adopt land management practices at least initially,” he wrote.

As mass and local media plays an important role in disseminating SLM practices, Prof. Mau Dung urged that “more radio bulletin and television news that introduce the SLM practices and their benefits” which are designed for each specific region.

He also recommended that government and policymakers to focus on improving the skills of extension staff who are involved in the promotion of SLM practices.

Since poor infrastructures were also identified as a drawback in SLM adoption, Prof. Mau Dung also recommended that the government consider investing programs for upgrading the road system in mountainous areas.  Also, more investment for irrigation systems for central coastal region.

Credit loans should also be considered.  “Many households reported that the cost for SLM adoption was high and the delayed return on investment from agroforestry model was a constraint for adoption” and credit loan may able to help those farmers who will adopt SLM practices.

Prof. Mau Dung also recommended that social organizations be enhanced.  “The local government should have specific plans to mobilize the active participation of these organizations for SLM promotion program,” he wrote.

These recommendations must be heeded if land degradation has to be halted.  “Land degradation, as a major environmental threat for food security, is mostly caused by inappropriate land management,” Prof. Mau Dung concluded.  “Sustainable land management plays an important role in mitigating land degradation.” (Photos courtesy of Prof. Nguyen Mau Dung)

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