I am Delia Catacutan, the country representative of the World Agroforestry Centre (or ICRAF) in Viet Nam. We are a leading international research organisation that seeks to generate knowledge on the role of trees in enhancing livelihoods and the environment, and use this knowledge to improve policy and practice.
My attention was brought to an article about the sad fate of rubber farmers in Viet Nam, in the November 19th issue of your newspaper. I was reading the article, ‘Troubled Rubber Industry' with great interest, as the story is real.
Indeed, poor smallholding farmers suffer the brunt of market failure, and the impact is severe because they specialise only on a single commodity.
However, we can be of help to these farmers! ICRAF's mission is to help farmers diversify their production system, so that the system itself is resilient and farmers will have diversified incomes. I am therefore writing you, to respond to that article, and offer a solution to the troubled rubber industry.
In the Philippines and here in Viet Nam, our researchers are working on optimum diversification of farming systems by integrating different tree species, cereals, legumes and forages - a practice called ‘agroforestry'.
In particular, we are improving the productivity of rubber-based system by integrating cash perennials such as cacao, coffee, forages and understory crops such as ginger and yam, on the same unit of land. If well-managed, this approach will help spread production risks, provide diverse income sources, maintain cash flows, as well as enable farmers to cope with fluctuating prices of agricultural commodities.
To achieve these benefits, farmers need to understand how plant growth resources such as light, water, and nutrients compete or complement each other. For example, cacao and coffee require partial shading to achieve optimum productivity, which can be addressed by managing rubber tree spacing, as illustrated in our research in the Philippines. Techniques such as pruning and fertilisation can also contribute to enhanced management of integrated systems. Trees are known to provide positive micro-climatic effects to associated perennial crops, and enrich soil carbon through litter fall.
Diversifying rubber plantations is also a good risk aversion strategy to pests and disease outbreaks in contrast to monoculture rubber.
Rubber farmers in Viet Nam need not suffer from a troubled rubber industry!
This can be avoided if they are supported to grow other perennials on their rubber plantations. Government directive and support is needed to ensure that farmers diversify their rubber plantations, and researchers must provide technical advice on optimal integration in rubber-based systems.