Farmers cherish biodiversity in Laos

Cultivating rice. Laos. Photo : Oxfam
680 families of rice farmers have participated in a biodiversity management and conservation project

With 13,000 known varieties of rice, Laos is only second to India when it comes to diversity in this staple food. By exploiting this natural resource, smallholders play a crucial role in preserving genetic wealth.

For more than ten years, Oxfam has coordinated a biodiversity management and conservation project that is rooted in the needs of farmer communities. It brings together the Ministry for Agriculture, the National agriculture and forestry research institute, agricultural education institutions, NGOs and, obviously, the farmers themselves.

The BUCAP project (Biodiversity Use and Conservation in Asia Program) is part of a South-East Asian program, coordinated by Searice, a Philippine NGO that defends farmer's rights to preserve and use their seeds.

Seed control

Farmers experiment and improve their way of selecting, cross-breeding, growing and storing their seeds in dedicated parcels. Since the start of the project, it has reached out to some 680 families.

Moonthong and his wife Khambang own a 2 hectare plot for rice culture and seed production in Vientiane province. “We crossed our seeds before, but our techniques were less professional. Nowadays, we're also more aware of biodiversity losses: many varieties are threatened because we don't use them and we don't know how to preserve them.”

Rising yields and greater financial autonomy

Farmers gain from selecting their own seeds. Some even allot a part of their fields for seed production, which they then trade or barter with other farmers.

Before the BUCAP project, Moonthong and Khambang bought their seeds from the seed industry. “But those seeds often failed to meet the productivity promises,” they say.

The seed industry develops very homogeneous seeds without taking account of differences in environmental characteristics, because the industry's goal is to sell them as widely as possible. This logic jeopardizes biodiversity and, in the light of climate change, this uniformity is dangerous.

BUCAP on the contrary champions the development of new varieties that are more adapted to climate change. With its support, farmers have already selected drought- or flood-resistant seeds.

Because of its success, the project has just been extended for four years in nine more provinces of Laos, to the satisfaction of farmers.