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Farmers’ strategies as building block for rethinking sustainable intensification

Abstract

Agricultural intensification, now commonly referred to as sustainable intensification, is presented in development discourse as a key means to simultaneously improve food security and reduce rural poverty without harming the environment. Taking a village in Laos as a case study, we show how government agencies and farmers could perceive the idea of agricultural intensification differently. The study illustrates how farmers with the opportunities for groundwater use typically choose to grow vegetables and high valued cash crops rather than intensify rice production. This contrasts with government and donor supported efforts to promote rice intensification as a means to increase food security and reduce rural poverty. The article’s main message is that farmers’ differing strategies are related to a variety of household characteristics and that farmers’ strategies should be central to the current discussion on sustainable intensification.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In 2005 donors accounted for 75 % of total capital expenditure, compared to 18 % 5 years earlier. Still, following the same trend, donors fund accounted for 70 % of total investment in agricultural and forestry sector in 2010, with two-thirds of the funds invested in irrigation systems construction and rehabilitation and rural road construction (GoL 2010a).

  2. 2.

    While rice fields make up the entire farm area for most small farming households, some households (usually medium and large) also own additional land they use to raise cattle and cultivate high valued cash crops.

  3. 3.

    The commercialization trend is also evident in the way all farmers have replaced buffaloes with small tractors to prepare land for planting. While the change is also related with the cheaper price of tractors, farmers’ decisions to shift from buffaloes to tractors is driven mainly by the lack of agricultural labor to take care of their buffaloes.

  4. 4.

    See also Röling and van de Fliert (1994) on the central positioning of farmers’ strategies to increase the effectiveness of extension services towards farmer participation and empowerment.

Abbreviations

AMP:

Agricultural master plan

GoL:

Government of Laos

MAF:

Ministry of agriculture and forestry

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) for their financial support to the International Water Management Institute to conduct this study under the ACIAR Project LWR/2010/81: Enhancing the resilience and productivity of rainfed dominated systems in Lao PDR through sustainable groundwater use. This project contributes to the CGIAR Research Programs on Water, Land, and Ecosystems (WLE) and Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). We would like to thank Paul Pavelic for overall project support, Florence Milan, Singkham Lueyeevang, and Leexong Leebouapao for their support in baseline survey, and Ms. Chantha Souvannaxayyavong and Ms. Chon Chanthasean from respectively the District Agriculture and Forestry Office (DAFO) and the Ekxang village authority for logistic support in the field. The study design, data collection, analysis, and interpretation of the result were undertaken exclusively by the authors.

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Correspondence to Diana Suhardiman.

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Suhardiman, D., Giordano, M., Leebouapao, L. et al. Farmers’ strategies as building block for rethinking sustainable intensification. Agric Hum Values 33, 563–574 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-015-9638-3

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Keywords

  • Rice intensification
  • Agricultural groundwater use
  • Farming strategies
  • Laos