RESEARCH COOPERATION FOR LIVESTOCK-BASED SUSTAINABLE FARMING SYSTEMS
IN THE LOWER MEKONG BASIN
This regional network on sustainable agriculture in South East Asia is supported by Sida/SAREC. Participating institutions are the countries in the Lower Mekong Basin (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand). The core activities are research, research training, and exchange and dissemination of information.
Current agricultural research efforts and existing university teaching programmes in the region tend to concentrate almost exclusively on large-scale, conventional production systems. They usually emphasize sophisticated and expensive technology, which have proved to be “successful”, at least with respect to increasing production, in industrialized countries. The attitudes of senior administrators, managers and scientists in the region usually reflect this bias, which explains the ready acceptance and promotion of so many development projects that are totally unsuitable for developing countries from socio-economic considerations, and are often directly damaging to the environment. This kind of educational background also explains the lack of interest of project directors and agricultural researchers in the tropics in resource-poor farmers, who make up the majority of the population and account for a large part of agricultural production. Other serious failings include the lack of appreciation of the role of livestock in agricultural production systems for smallholders and the environmental degradation that results from the promotion of inappropriate production technologies. This was the conclusion of the regional symposium Sustainable Livestock Production on Local Feed Resources, that took place in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, January 18-20, 2000. Similar conclusions can be found in the Global Agenda for Livestock Research, ILRI, Nairobi, 1995 and in the World Bank/FAO study Livestock and the Environment, FAO, Rome, 1998.
However, there appears to be a change in attitudes underway in the region. The shortcomings of mono-cropping and industrialized production systems have been highlighted in several studies and, for example, agriculture in Thailand has been listed as a “problem hotspot” by the World Bank due to the involution of its agricultural production system. The dangers of the dependence on imported agricultural inputs became obvious during the financial crisis in 1997 and this may mark the beginning of a new era in agricultural research in the region.
3. On-going programs supported by SAREC and NATUR
The SAREC supported program on “Sustainable Livestock-based Farming Systems” is part of the bilateral research cooperation between Sweden and Vietnam. It is based at the University of Agriculture and Forestry in Ho Chi Minh City. Its main components are training at PhD level, execution of research projects and financial support to research projects through competitive research grants. It is supported by the Department of Animal Nutrition and Management of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. There are currently eight PhD candidates enrolled in the programme.
There is also a SAREC-supported MSc programme that has, since its inception in 1992 accepted students from Vietnam and neighbouring countries and embraced the philosophy of sustainable production systems. It has developed a multitude of technologies suitable for resource-poor farmers in the region. Just to quote an example, the low-cost tubular biogas technology has been adopted by more than 9,000 farmers in the southern part of Vietnam since it first was introduced through the project. Another example is the development of a system to replace cereal grain with sugarcane juice in pig production together with the Women’s Union in North Vietnam. More than 1,000 families are now benefitting from this technology. This has happened despite the fact that the aim of the programme is to train MSc students and it is not a development project with outreach facilities.
So far 37 graduate students have received their MSc degree from training in the programme and a further 12 will graduate in May 2001 at the end of the 4th and final course. The programmes have thus been able to create a strong base in Vietnam and are now well known also outside Vietnam and have in fact become one of the two leading global powerhouses in research on integrated tropical agriculture. The other one is located in Colombia.
There would thus be scope to expand these successful programmes to embrace the whole region of the Lower Mekong Basin (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand). Such an expansion would benefit all participating countries as the different centres all have much to contribute to, and gain from, such a network.
The SAREC programme introduced at a very early stage modern research training methods. Each participant in the programme received at the beginning of the training course his or her own laptop computer. Training in computer knowledge, statistics, participatory techniques and research planning was done in a new and advanced way. The course leaders could through their prestige attract the best lecturers from around the world who willingly and often at no cost trained and guided the students. The graduates are quite different from the norm in the region in that as a result of the training they are now able to find information themselves and are able to work without critical dependence on backup facilities such as well-stocked libraries and expensive laboratories. The training is very hands-on, oriented towards the problems facing resource-poor farmers and is imbued with ecological awareness without being fundamentalistic. The training philosophy has attracted attention among decision makers in the region. This approach to training in sustainable agriculture that has been developed in the SAREC program in Vietnam could play a role also in other countries in the region in their attempts to develop sustainable agriculture.
Sida’s country strategies for the region all emphasise a change in focus towards research and assistance to the rural poor. In fact, three of the large Sida area development programmes in the region – CARERE II in Cambodia, the Natural Resources Mangement Programme in Laos and the Mountain Rural Development Program in Vietnam all aim towards finding sustainable livelihoods for resource-poor farmers. New knowledge on farming systems based on research findings will be an important component in all three programmes. The task to formulate the new work plans will be carried out by a group within NATUR and with close links to SAREC. The proposed cooperation can play a key role in training of local researchers that will be attached to the programmes and in the exchange of ideas and experiences between the countries concerned.
4. The process leading to the proposal for regional research cooperation
The idea to establish cooperation among researchers has been discussed for some time in the countries concerned. During a summing-up meeting of the Livestock-based Farming Systems Programme that took place in Ho Chi Minh in January this year, the idea was discussed among invited researchers from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Support was unanimous and the University of Agriculture and Forestry in Ho Chi Minh offered to become the coordinating body.
The participating universities in Vietnam have developed new and unique knowledge, however, other universities and research centres in the region have their own unique experiences and knowledge that would be of interest to others. For example, Khon Kaen University is the leading institution in the region on utilization of crop residues such as rice straw, which is the largest under-utilized feed resource in South East Asia. Suranaree University is well known for its farming system research and Chiang Mai University for its work with upgrading of slash and burn farming. The University of Tropical Agriculture in Phnom Penh has done pioneering work on the sugar palm as an animal feed. There is an expressed need by researchers to organize a mechanism by which this knowledge can be shared in an effective and sustainable manner. The following universities and research centers declared their interest to participate in the network:
University of Agriculture and Forestry, UAF, Ho Chi Minh City
Can Tho University, CTU, Can Tho
An Giang University, An Giang
Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry, Hue
National Institute of Animal Husbandry, NIAH, Hanoi
National University of Laos, NUOL, Vientiane
National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute, NAFRI, Vientiane
Royal University of Agriculture, RUA, Phnom Penh
University of Tropical Agriculture, UTA, Phnom Penh
Khon Kaen University, KKU, Khon Kaen
Suranaree University, Nakhon Ratchasima
Chiang Mai University, CMU, Chiang Mai
Prince of Songkla University (PSU), Hat Yai
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU, Uppsala
At the January 2000 meeting an interim steering committee was appointed to further explore the possibility to establish regional research cooperation on livestock-based sustainable farming systems in the Lower Mekong Basin.
During April 2000, the steering committee visited all the countries and discussed the idea with stakeholders and what the different institutions could contribute to the proposed activities. On the basis of these preparatory discussions a stakeholder meeting was called and took place in Ho Chi Minh city in August 2000. Present at this meeting were Rectors, Deans and Department Heads of the universities and Vice-Directors of research institutes. At this meeting the following proposal was formulated.
The need for a regional programme was justified on the basis of:
The similarities among the four participating countries in terms of the:
- Agro-ecological conditions
- Constraints to, and opportunities for, research leading to the improvement of small-holder agriculture which is the backbone of the rural economies of these countries.
The opportunities to:
- Build on the existing although limited cooperation in research and training
- Improve social and environmental stability through research directed at improving the welfare of resource-poor farmers
- Contribute to poverty alleviation through livestock-based farming systems
The development objectives are to:
- Contribute to poverty alleviation
- To improve the livelihood of poor farmers
The immediate objectives are to:
- Strengthen cooperation in research, training, and dissemination of information in the Lower Meking Basin
- Exchange ideas, experiences and information
- Promote livestock as the epicentre of sustainable farming systems
- Appoint a steering committee comprised of representatives of the participating institutions and related stakeholders
The activities to be promoted are to:
- Establish a network of institutions that will respond to and promote the objectives of the proposal
- Establish a research fund (with emphasis on stimulating joint and multi-disciplinary research activities)
- Train researchers throughout the region at all levels (short courses, MSc, PhD) (an MSc degree is now a requisite to apply for a grant from the International Foundation for Science and is considered to be a necessity before junior scientists can embark on PhD training)
7.1.1 Improving the flow of information among researchers
- Annual workshops will be held at least once per year and the location rotated among participating countries. The proceedings will be published as Web pages and on CD-ROM disks.
- Each institution will host a Web page detailing the activities and results achieved. The Web pages will be continuously updated.
- An electronic newsletter will be published by the Network Coordinator.
- Pilot information systems will be established in rural areas to facilitate communication and flow of information to and from researchers
- The members of the network are the institutions that were invited to the August 2000 meeting.
- The representatives (national coordinators) of the member institutions should be senior researchers working in livestock-based sustainable farming systems.
7.2 Research fund (2001-2003)
The participating countries are Cambodia, Lao and Thailand. Vietnam will continue to receive research funds through the existing bilateral agreement, which will continue through 2002. Inter-country and multi-disciplinary projects will be encouraged in which Vietnamese researchers will be able to participate.
The lead scientists in each research application must be members of the network but scientists from non-member institutions / departments may be members of the team.
The research to be done by participants in the MSc training programme will be financed from the Research Fund. The steering committee will have the responsibility of reviewing and approving requests for grants from the research fund. Recipients of research grants must present the results of their work at the annual workshops
7.3.1 Short courses
Short courses will be supported as proposed / specified by participating institutions. These will be evaluated and approved by the steering committee. It is envisaged that there will be 1 to 2 regional events annually.
7.3.2 MSc course
188.8.131.52 General issues
The course will begin in August 2001 and will be repeated at two-year intervals. The degree and coordination will be the responsibility initially of SLU but the aim is for this to be handed over to a regional consortium representing the stakeholder universities.
It is proposed that there should be a maximum of 16 participants per course. Applicants will be selected by the steering committee. The requirements are a BSc in Animal science or related subject and experience or interest in integrated small-holder farming systems.
The project should provide English language training to raise participants to a suitable level of proficiency.
The curriculum used in the earlier SAREC MSc courses will form the basis for the proposed regional programme with some additional courses as follows:
- Renewable energy
- Soil – crop – animal interaction
- Animal health & reproduction
- Appropriate genetic resources
184.108.40.206 Regional participation
It is proposed to take advantage of existing facilities and expertise in the different institutions participating in the programme. The center of the course activities will be in UAF in Vietnam. However, the students will spend periods of 2 to 4 weeks at each of the following institutions according to the course syllabus .
220.127.116.11 Research project
This component of the MSc programme will be financed from the Research Fund. Students are expected to begin to formulate their research project during the course work, taking advantage of the expertise and experience of the resource persons at the participating institutions. The detailed activities will be drawn up during the final weeks of the initial phase of the course which will be held at UAF.
Students will in the main do their research project in their home country, however, there will be opportunities to work in other countries in the region according to the chosen subject.
Communication by Email will facilitate close interaction between students and facilitators throughout the conduct of the research. The initial phase of the write-up of the research will begin at the student’s work place with the final preparation of the thesis being done at UAF.
The defence of the theses will be arranged to coincide with the holding of the annual workshops and will be rotated around the participating institutions.
7.3.3 PhD training
This applies only to candidates from Laos and Cambodia. It is envisaged that only 2 to 3 candidates will be suitably qualified during the first phase (2001-2003) of the project. The research for the PhD will be done in the region with course work and overall supervision provided by SLU. Local supervisors will participate in this programme.