SATrends Issue 58
September 2005
  • Making mountains from modest beginnings
  • Relief, Development, or Both?
  • Salt of the earth!
  • 1. Making mountains from modest beginnings

    Mountains and midlands cover about 75% of Vietnam’s total land area. Most of the arable land is occupied by rice. The average area for cultivation per head is approximately 0.1 ha, and 29% of the population are below poverty line.

    Groundnut is one of the main sources of foreign exchange, apart from being the source of oil, protein, food and fodder. Groundnut area and production were almost stagnant between 1975 and1990. In a survey carried out in 1991 by ICRISAT and Vietnamese scientists, the problems associated with groundnut production emerged, as did a plan for collaborative activities to improve the situation.

    For northern Vietnam, the emphasis was on reallocation of resources to maximize returns for farmers. In southern Vietnam the emphasis was on fine-tuning the existing production technology introducing improved varieties to maximize returns by exploiting Genotype x Environment.

    Vietnamese farmers with groundnut crop.

    Advanced breeding lines and selected germplasm with farmers’ preferred traits were introduced by ICRISAT (> 1000 lines since 1989) for evaluation prior to local adaptation. A hybridization program was initiated to develop improved varieties locally.

    In a joint study by ICRISAT and the Oil Plant Institute of Vietnam in 1997, non-availability of improved variety seed was listed as the major constraint limiting their adoption, so special efforts were made to produce seed of improved varieties in farmers’ fields. By producing their own seed, farmers could save 25-30% in seed cost besides ensuring better quality of the seed used.

    Other management practices such as seed treatment against disease, using optimum plant densities and polythene mulching greatly increased pod yield and reduced rot and pest damage.

    The biggest advantage was the confidence and faith that the farming community developed in scientists and their technologies. This established a strong bond among farmers and the scientific community, after which there was no looking back.

    Over the years, the groundnut scenario in the country has shown significant changes due to technological interventions and support from the government and local leadership. The Government is promoting groundnut cultivation, particularly in areas where the rice productivity is low. Groundnut export has also increased over the years.

    Groundnut farmers now live in concrete houses and own motorbikes, refrigerators and television sets. ICRISAT continues to train Vietnamese scientists, who can develop project proposals on their own, besides making scientific presentations in English at regional/ international workshops with confidence.

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    2. Relief, Development, or Both?

    Relief and development agencies struggle with priorities. Relief in the form of short-term interventions to rescue communities? Or, development investments that will give bigger pay-offs, but only in the long term?

    ICRISAT’s work in Zimbabwe shows that relief and development are not mutually exclusive. With funding from DFID, FAO, and USAID, and support from a wide range of partners, scientists are showing how relief investments can be structured so as to yield both short- and long-term impacts.

    Large-scale relief programs have been implemented in Zimbabwe during the last several years. Governments and donors provide not only food aid but also farm inputs to get small-scale farm communities back on their feet. But do these programs give value for the money invested? ICRISAT asked some basic questions:

    • How to ensure that relief programs target the poorest people?
    • Could better distribution ‘packages’ give higher pay-offs?
    • In what skills should beneficiaries be trained?
    • How to measure the impacts?
    • How can program design be improved?

    Surveys were conducted covering nearly 3000 households across 19 districts. The results were surprising. Most NGOs had specific criteria to select beneficiary households, but these criteria – female-headed households, households with orphans or sick people, etc, were not clear indicators of crop production (and food insecurity).

    Households with adequate draft animals planted 60% more land, and harvested 70% more grain, than households without. Cattle spells wealth; and ownership is easy to establish. In short, use cattle ownership to identify which households should or shouldn’t receive relief.

    Much of the relief seed distributed is never planted because of poor quality or poorly adapted seed. ICRISAT and other partners have developed and tested a range of high-yielding, early-maturing, locally adapted varieties. Relief programs must select the right variety for each environment and ensure that seed quality is good before distribution.

    Seed distribution in Zimbabwe.

    ICRISAT has dispelled the myth that fertilizer does no good in low-rainfall areas. In fact, if done right, distribution of fertilizer gives more than double the returns from seed distribution, even in dry areas. The solution is micro-dosing: small quantities of fertilizer, applied directly to the plant, at the right time.

    ICRISAT is also looking for other ways to improve the efficiency and impacts of relief programs. Building on the study, ICRISAT led an NGO consortium in developing a comprehensive set of guidelines covering design, implementation, monitoring, and coordination, which have been adopted by all major international agencies in Zimbabwe.

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    3. Salt of the earth!

    The ravages to life and property caused by the Tsunami that took several countries in southeast Asia by surprise on 26 December 2004 will take years, and maybe even a generation, to repair, let alone forget. Fortunately the present day and age provides tools that can be employed to help rehabilitate areas devastated by such natural disasters. Information Technology is one such tool.

    ICRISAT’s Director General, Dr William Dar, who is also Chairman of the Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT) Consortium, suggested that the VASAT approach be used to design a pilot project on the rehabilitation of affected soil resources in the tsunami-affected areas on the southeastern coast of India.

    Agro-rehabilitating tsunami-affected areas.

    In July 2005, a team of ICRISAT scientists led by SP Wani and Sreenath Dixit, participated in an appraisal mission organized by the VASAT partner, the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). A new pilot project involving ICRISAT, MSSRF and the Greenline Group of the USA is in the process of development. The Greenline group is a consortium of US-based experts and three US universities lead by Dr Michael Chaplinsky. The Group has developed rapid soil quality restoration techniques for brine spills on farmlands involving a combination of sodium exchange and organic compost application.

    The upcoming pilot study will deploy this set of established technologies and will use the practice of rural ICT centers in the affected areas (there are ten such centers founded by MSSRF) to engage practicing farmers in the rehabilitation and enhancement of soil quality in selected plots in the affected areas. The work is expected to commence during the northeast monsoon season (October-December) in the State of Tamil Nadu in India.

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