Yen Chau district, Son La province - A prospective site for CEMI activities

From June 24 - July 4, Mr. Ove Gejl Christensen, the Vice-Chair of ADDA, travelled to Vietnam for a monitoring visit to the Vietnam Country Program. His program involved a 5-day field visit to program activities in Son La and Hoa Binh provinces. Besides visits to ongoing Projects activities under the Legal Aid to the Rural Population Project, Phase II and the Strengthening of Farmers' Interest Groups in Nghe An and Hoa Binh (FIGNAHB) Project, the ADDA team arranged for Mr. Ove to discuss the upcoming activities under the Climate Change for Ethnic Minorities (CEMI) with the Son La Provincial Farmers Union and visit what the PFU perceived as a potential focus for field activities under the Project. This field visit took the team to Tu Nang Commune of Yen Chau District, the most easterly commune of Yen Chau, abutting Moc Chau. Here the ADDA team was able to discuss with representatives of the District Farmers' Union and village leaders about the situation in the area. It was reported that the Vang Phay village was composed of 72 households almost exclusively of the ethnic Thai minority.

Discussion with Lady Village Head from Ethnic Thai Community

Tu Nang Commune lies half way up the valley of the Sap stream which begins in Loong Phieng Commune of Moc Chau and flows westward to Yen Chau town, before cutting through the ridge to flow into the Song Da reservoir. Here the stream is deeply incised and there is no land available for the rice cultivation in the valley bottom which characterizes similar Thai communities further down the valley. Thus the paddy fields are strung along the valley side and are fed by small streams diverted from the surrounding hills.

Hillside paddy lands in the village

The total area of rice land is quite small so that, as the population grew, the local people began to supplement their income from maize cultivation up the hill slopes as long as twenty years ago. It was reported that even then the farmers used improved varieties of maize, although this seems unlikely. Over time with permanent cultivation of the hillside and a fall in soil fertility, there has certainly been a shift towards hybrid maize and increasing use of chemical fertilizer. It was reported that typically farmers used one ton of NPK and 500 kg of urea fertilizer per hectare per crop.

The problem with this level of investment is that the environment is unstable. There now appears to be no standard season for maize because often the seed planted in spring is washed out with unseasonal showers. This situation might occur twice in a year, forcing the farmers to plant three times to secure a crop. Gullying and downslope erosion have become a major problem. Some parts of the slope are now bare and cannot be cropped for lack of top soil. The only remaining area covered with trees was funeral forest (Pa cha in Thai dialect) The District Farmers' Union reported that Yen Chau is the lowest and hottest part of Son La Province and that heavy rain at the top of the valley led to flooding of the rice fields downstream from the torrential streams in the rainy season. Sometimes these streams carry boulders which also damage the paddy fields. Siltation was also affecting the fish ponds at the foot of the slope, typically part of the Thai agricultural system.

Farmers are aware of the need for changes in their agricultural system and they have received some help from the District authorities for the planting of tree crops across the slope to control erosion. However many of the saplings were also washed out in the heavy rains. The possibility of under-sowing grasses or cover crops that is related to the livestock activities was discussed. It is interesting to note that the hill side is divided into three-four mini watersheds, each cultivated by 10-15 households. Any attempt to restore the situation would have to be done on a group or community basis, lending itself to group activity like a Farmer Field School. The Village Head said that working as a group would not be a problem. ADDA is awaiting the approval of the CEMI project by the Provincial People's Committee in Son La but it is good that the Provincial Farmers Union is already thinking ahead about sites with typical problems from over-intensification of slope land agriculture. Ideally the whole of the valley should be the focus of an integrated watershed land use plan although this is probably beyond the scope of the current CEMI project. One problem in this respect is the division of the watershed between the two Districts of Moc Chau and Yen Chau.

One mini watershed on the hillside, affected by severe gullies

Harvey Demaine
June 8, 2014
Pictures courtesy of
Nguyen Phi Thuong