Farming in mountain areas (1)

Farming in Mountain Regions” is a critical area of enquiry, which integrates bioclimatic, socio-cultural and economic aspects of these dynamic, high altitude and rugged regions of the world. The first of three sessions by the same title, organized and hosted by the Mountain Societies Research Institute (MSRI) at the University of Central Asia (UCA), was held in the morning session of October 6, 2015, at the Royal George Hotel in Perth, Scotland.

Mountain regions are the ‘water towers’ of the world, and supply water and many other ecosystem goods and services for more than half of the world’s population. In the highlands of Asia alone (including Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Tibetan plateau regions), around 1.3 billion people depend on ecological services, especially water supply, which are delivered from the upstream high montane areas. As we consider farming systems, it is important to recognize that this encompasses not only crop cultivation but also agro-pastoral and livestock-based systems such as nomadic pastoralism. The health of upland ecosystems impacts the wellbeing of local and downstream residents; and conversely, people’s use of the land impacts the local biodiversity and environmental conditions. It is helpful, therefore, that we consider the mountain regions including farming systems through the lens of integrated social-ecological systems.

Both ecological and social dimensions of mountain environments also are increasingly affected by global change – including climate change and also globalization of markets. In today’s sessions, we focus on three broad thematic areas in relation to farming in the world’s mountain regions: (i) the conservation of natural resources including traditional crops and soil fertility, (ii) household/family level and traditional farming systems, and (iii) high rangeland systems including issues of common pool resources.

Four presentations were offered in the first session, focused on project work in India and Vietnam as well as a regional Asian overview.

Rakesh Kumar Maikhuri discussed emerging concerns in regard to agro-biodiversity (traditional crops) in the Central Himalayas in northern India, and outlined several priorities for conservation and resource management. The inter-linkages between the subsystems of forest, agriculture, livestock systems and the domestic centres (villages) were highlighted, noting especially the significant role that is played by forests through their products and services. Local livelihoods in these high regions continue to be based on traditional mountain crops, which provide higher yield (compared to more common crops), are nutritionally rich, and are known to possess medicinal properties. However deterioration of environment and economy is suggested as due to commercialization, to limited capacities, to poor policies, etc. More attention should be paid to the integrated nature of hill agriculture. Additionally, food security also could be enhanced with (i) better management use and conservation of resources including traditional crops, (ii) development of cost-effect agricultural technologies, (iii) conservation of socio-cultural aspects of livelihood systems, and (iv) improved agricultural and other policies. It also was suggested that traditional agroforestry should be promoted as well as local village marketing cooperatives and the tourism sector (e.g. with restaurants and hoteliers encouraged to include more traditional crops in their menus).

Two presentations were then given with a focus on northwest Vietnam. Melvin Lippe offered insights about why soil conservation technologies are (not) adopted by local farmers. Key questions related to magnitude of soil erosion in this region, and its impact on soil fertility. Current farming systems with maize have been in place for around 15 years. Four studies have come together: (1) a study on the impact of soil conservation techniques (SCT), (2) the evolution of soil fertility, (3) an assessment of economically viable SCTs, and finally (4) an assessment of why local people do not adopt SCT. Some key findings include the fact that use of hybrid crop varieties and of fertilizers mask the decline in soil fertility. Lower mineral prices also impede the adoption of SCT methods. Through stakeholder workshops (n=71), it was found the main constraint to adoption of SCTs is not lack of awareness about soil erosion or need for financial support, but rather insufficient dissemination of information and technical advice, as well as insecure land tenure. The assistance desired most by local stakeholders includes especially technical inputs. SCTs could reduce soil erosion by over 50%, but it takes several years to notice differences in agricultural productivity. Stakeholder-driven approaches are needed to develop more locally credible, long-term land use visions.

Christian Brandt then presented on a new method to identify erosion prone land use types, namely a compound-specific stable isotope (CSSI) analysis. Maize field grow on very steep slopes, leaving soil prone (before vegetation growth) to erosion; when the rainy season arrives, uncovered slopes exhibit extensive loss of soil; intensive tillage contributes to the problem, and much soil organic carbon and nutrients are lost with increased sedimentation in streams. The aim of this new methodology is to identify, through soil CSSI analysis, the origin (in terms of land type) of sediments from soil erosion. The main hypothesis in this presentation is that the CSSI analysis approach can distinguish soils from different land use types, based on various land uses contributing to different forms of soil carbon content. Through this method, it is found that maize and cassava are the main land use types to contribute most significantly to soil erosion, followed in one sample by teak; and much less contribution to soil erosion coming from other land use types. CSSI can thus be a useful tool to positively identify and apportion hot spots of soil erosion by land use types. CSSI analysis provides additional dimensions to generic information about the provenance of soil (through erosion), which is relevant to land use management decision making.

The fourth and final presentation, by Robert Zomer, sought to project climate change impacts on bioclimatic zones and agro-ecosystems in the Asian highlands. Climate change will affect water flow regimes, change the seasonality of precipitation, and in many ways affect people’s livelihoods. Over decades and centuries, local livelihoods have been fine-tuned to local conditions; these will need to change in light of regional climate change. Climate change is already evident to local farmers (including herders) across the Himalay – Hindu Kush (HKH) region. More precipitation comes as rainfall (versus snow fall; shift of precipitation toward summer season). Much permafrost also is being lost in the Tibetan plateau region. Under the current climate change trajectory, it also is noted that the “year of climate departure” (i.e., when climate conditions will be substantially different from the present time) will affect all of Asia by the year 2080. It is estimated that about 48% of the region will entirely switch bioclimatic zones by 2050, and that colder and higher elevation bioclimatic zones (above 4000m) are most greatly affected – the upward shift of zones will be the equivalent of about 350-400m. Changes of ‘bioclimatic zones’ will be a major constraint, and sometimes a driver, of land use practices. Such changes may also drive an extensive loss of cultural diversity; the whole system (both ecological and social) is changing dramatically, rapidly. It will be difficult, too, to predict how local communities may adapt to such changes; observed local responses to change have been extremely variable.


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