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Pre-conditions for Spontaneous Agroforestry in Hilly Regions of Vietnam: Implications for extension

Paul Woods & R. John Petheram

Institute of Land and Food Resources, the University of Melbourne


Recent research in the uplands of north central Vietnam, backed up by evidence from other cases, suggests that there are five essential conditions for spontaneous adoption of agroforestry enterprises by resource poor households:

  • ease of access to markets for the forestry products;
  • benefits (economic and other) from agroforestry are higher than from alternatives;
  • a viable forestry production technology is available and known to farmers;
  • farmer access to sufficient areas of land and security of tenure to that land; and
  • farmer confidence in being able to control risk, such as fire, pests, theft.

Despite this evidence, the promotion of tree based conservation farming on sloping lands in Vietnam commonly follows a conventional transfer of technology model of extension which focuses mainly on addressing perceived lack of ‘knowledge of a viable production technology’. Typically this involves “educating” farmers about alternative technologies, setting up demonstration plots and providing tree seedlings at subsidised prices. These approaches, applied quite successfully in promoting agricultural practices in homogenous farming areas, have generally failed to bring about widespread adoption of the agroforestry technologies being promoted by the government in complex upland farming situations, such as exist in Vietnam.

It is becoming clear that attempts to bring about widespread agroforestry (and hence soil conservation) on steep lands may require economic and institutional interventions designed to address all five essential conditions of the enabling environment. This will require a much broader definition of extension than is commonly applied in Vietnam. This paper aims to provide a simple decision support methodology for assessing the feasibility of agroforestry and for designing interventions that address essential conditions for spontaneous agroforestry.


In Vietnam agroforestry is promoted as an ideal option for rehabilitating ‘barren hills’ – those 10 million hectares of sloping land that have been denuded of forest cover and degraded by shifting cultivation, burning and other practices (Morrison and Dubois, 1998). Agroforestry is seen as a means of achieving sustainable management of sloping land - by providing the tree cover required to reduce erosion as well as livelihoods for upland farmers (MARD, 2000).

Current approaches used by government in Vietnam for promoting agroforestry are borrowed from agriculture and are based on technical extension agents directing production according to plans and targets, instead of supporting farmers in the development of locally appropriate technologies and practices (Christoplos, 1995; Hoang Huu Cai et al, 2001). Agricultural improvement strategies are based on a system of central planning in which extension workers are mainly responsible for communicating production targets to farmers and educating them on government policy and recommended practices.

Although this transfer of technology (TOT) approach, based on disseminating ‘model’ technologies (Peters, 2001), has contributed to boosting developing agricultural production in areas where natural, socio-economic and production conditions are quite homogenous (Hoang Huu Cai et al, 2000), this approach has been strongly criticised for failing to reach resource-poor farmers in marginal conditions (Cox et al, 1998). It has generally failed to bring about any widespread change in farmers’ agroforestry practices in Southeast Asia (Morrison and Dubois, 1998; Foerster and Nguyen Huu Tho, 1999). Many poor farmers in remote areas, including forest dwellers, cannot access extension services, or they find the recommended technologies too complicated and expensive in external inputs (Hoang Huu Cai et al, 2000).

Extension for agroforestry may require quite different approaches to suit the needs of farmers in a diversity of situations. Agroforestry crops are long term, strongly influenced by resource rights and tenure, and are usually only one component of a complex production system (Anderson and Farrington, 1996) that may include agricultural cropping, homegardens, fishponds, livestock management, collection of forest products and wage labour (e.g. Wollenberg and Nawir, 1998; Woods, 2001). The complexity and variability of agroforestry systems make the relevance and acceptability of recommended land use changes often highly site specific (Cardoso et al, 2001; Bernet et al, 2001). In addition, tree planting is often promoted by government as a strategy primarily for soil conservation, which introduces objectives that may not be shared by farmers.

The central issue of concern in agroforestry extension is ‘what types of support or intervention are required to bring about the achievement of policy objectives and how can these be effectively provided by development institutions and government?’ In this paper agroforestry extension is defined as any social, economic or institutional intervention that is intended to provide a more favourable environment for farmers to experiment with, develop and introduce tree crop enterprises as a component of their production systems on sloping land.

The assumptions that underpin the Enabling Environment for Agroforestry (EEA) approach outlined in this paper are that farmers make decisions on tree planting under a variety of influences, including site conditions, silvicultural knowledge and skills, tenurial and benefit sharing arrangements, market forces, national policies, regional development and neighbouring communities (Apel, 1998; Wollenberg, 1998b; Byron, 2001) and that all farmers are ‘experimenters’ who seek to optimise returns to land, labour and capital, consistent with cultural norms and individual aspirations (IIRR, 1999).

The aim of this paper is to outline a decision support methodology for designing local level agroforestry extension programs, with three key attributes. Firstly it provides for the broad range of possible interventions or ‘policy levers’ available (Sikor, 2001). Secondly it assumes that the fundamental basis for extension is farmer decision making that takes place in a local context that is largely beyond the direct control of any formal administrative structure (Christoplos, 1995). Thirdly it integrates the local context into the design of extension programs.

The intended audience is extension practitioners and rural development policy makers in the field of upland agriculture and agroforestry in Southeast Asia and particularly in Vietnam.

The ‘enabling environment’ approach to agroforestry development

Background on the concept of the enabling environment

Farmers in certain areas of Vietnam have spontaneously developed various agroforestry practices in response to market opportunities such as for bamboo in Thanh Hoa Province (Woods, 2001) or for pulp wood in Vinh Phu Province (Rambo, 1997). While farmers are often criticised for their failure to adopt recommended agroforestry technologies (MARD, 2000), these examples suggest that farmers will develop and adopt their own agroforestry systems if certain economic, institutional and social conditions are favourable (Apel, 1998). This concept is termed here the ‘enabling environment for agroforestry’ (EEA).

The concept of enabling environment is not new (e.g. Scherr, 1992; Arnold and Dewees, 1998; Vanclay 1992). It has surfaced in a number of different fields and contexts, including ‘the enabling environment’ for poverty reduction (Hainsworth, 1999), for community forest management (Apel, 1998) for agricultural extension (Christoplos, 1995), as well as for forest product based enterprises (Wollenberg, 1998c). The recognition of the importance of the enabling environment for agroforestry stems partly from a number of recent studies that advocate intervention at the macroeconomic level to achieve better local forest management (Sikor, 2001; Kaimowitz et al, 1998; Ndoye and Kaimowitz, 1998). The investigation of context as a basis for designing R & D interventions is a well developed process (Walker et al, 2001).

The enabling environment approach shares some common features with the ‘farming systems perspective’ of the 1980s that recognised the influence of environmental, technical, social and economic factors on the adoption of innovations (Frank and Chamala, 1992; Petheram and Cl;ark 1998). However, such perspectives sometimes had a pro-innovation bias (Rogers, 1983) that tended to focus on constraints to a particular innovation, rather than to factors that inhibited experimentation and spontaneous development based on indigenous knowledge. The approach suggested here places more emphasis on creating favourable conditions for spontaneous innovation based on indigenous agroforestry knowledge than on externally derived technology innovations. Indigenous knowledge in this context is defined as ‘ideas, experiences, practices and information that have been generated locally, or are generated elsewhere but have been transformed by local people and incorporated in the local way of life. Indigenous knowledge incorporates local technologies but also social, cultural and economic aspects.’ (Okali et al, 1994:35).

Prospects for improving the sustainability of sloping land management in Southeast Asia by creating favourable conditions for agroforestry are probably better than in temperate ecosystems because farming practices across much of the tropical uplands traditionally incorporated some form of tree cultivation, forest utilisation or regeneration (Byron and Arnold, 1999). Tree crops have some different characteristics from agricultural crops, such as being long term and strongly influenced by resource rights and tenure, having a relatively low value (Anderson and Farrington, 1996), but providing high returns to labour (Menz and Grist, 1997; Woods, 2001) as well as sometimes providing a form of social security (Woods, 2001). Because of the different characteristics of tree crops and agricultural crops there is the possibility of using economic and institutional policy making to tip the balance in favour of tree crops and away from agricultural crops, on sloping land. Achieving this, particularly if it meant substituting agroforestry for shifting cultivation , could contribute significantly to the achievement of policy objectives for reforestation of degraded ‘barren hills’ in Vietnam (Kerkvliet and Porter, 1995; Rambo, 1997).

However, although national level policies recognise that institutional factors (such as lack of secure tenure over land) can impede agroforestry adoption, and Vietnam’s national land allocation program reflects this understanding (Morrison and Dubois, 1998), these factors have not been incorporated in the local practice of agroforestry extension in Vietnam. This problem has also been recognised in Australia and is attributed partly to the difficulty in operationalising ecologically sustainable development across a range of spatial and temporal scales (Walker et al, 2001).

Contrasts between EEA approach and the traditional TOT models of extension?

The enabling environment approach advocated here:

  • allows the forms of intervention most likely to influence agroforestry development to be determined locally on the basis of participative analysis of existing constraints (Scherr, 1992);
  • integrates economic, social and institutional factors of the enabling environment and depends heavily on participative research, monitoring and evaluation;
  • provides a holistic framework for research, extension and technology development in agroforestry; and
  • is aimed at solving household livelihood and land management problems rather than to disseminate innovations (van de Fliert, 2000; Izac and Sanchez, 2001).

Further characteristics relate to the strategies used for achieving policy objectives, the ways in which success is evaluated and the type of information flow between farmers and planners (Table 1).

Table 1: Contrasts between the TOT approach currently in use in Vietnam and the proposed EEA approach.


Technology transfer approach

Enabling environment approach

Strategy for achieving policy objectives

To facilitate adoption of officially selected and recommended technologies

To create the conditions under which households spontaneously develop agroforestry based enterprises

Lack of success attributed to:

Individual non-adoption – farmers seen to make ‘wrong decisions’

Social, institutional or economic context fails to support indigenous agroforestry innovation

Focus of evaluation:

Individual household (farm)

Net effect of interventions on whole community and landscape

Parameters used for evaluation :

Degree of participation (e.g. percentage adoption)

Overall impact on land use and benefit to households

Problem diagnosis

Made at bureaucratic level on behalf of whole community

Made at household level by individual households

Intervention strategy

Convince farmers to change to recommended technologies

Provide an enabling environment that is more supportive of agroforestry cf. alternatives

Type of information flow between farmers and planners

One-way. Information limited to informing farmers about government policy, regulations or new technologies

Two-way. Any type of information required to improve households’ decision making capacity. eg., cropping systems, prices, markets, etc.

Assumed causes of low production or persistence of unsustainable practices

Lack of knowledge about modern technologies

Flaws in the enabling environment for agroforestry

Recognition of linkages between agroforestry and household livelihood strategies

Weak –technologies promulgated in isolation

Strong – recognition that households manage complex and integrated production systems

Source of management/ technology innovation:

Mainly external, imposed, limited range of options (prescriptive)

Mainly indigenous, farmer experimentation to meet individual household circumstances, unlimited range of options

System conceptual boundaries

Mainly economic and technical realm of agriculture and natural resource management

Comprehensive, e.g., can include social, economic and institutional factors

Forms of intervention (Extension tools)

Credit tied to particular technologies, subsidised inputs, education, regulation.

Capacity building, training, policy and institutional reform. Building ‘social capital’. Market factors

Identifying the key factors of the enabling environment for agroforestry

External influences such as lack of infrastructure, poor seed quality and availability, unfavourable input or output price policies, regulatory barriers, tenurial disincentives and market barriers are some factors that may inhibit agroforestry development (Scherr, 1992). Results of recent research carried out in Thanh Hoa Province (Woods, 2001) supported by observations made in a broad range of situations (Byron, 2001) isolated five conditions that need to be met before agroforestry will be adopted spontaneously by farmers (Box 1).

Box 1: Five conditions for spontaneous agroforestry in hill areas of Vietnam

  • There is a market for agroforestry products and means of transport available.
  • The economic returns from agroforestry are higher than alternative uses of the land.
  • A viable production technology is available and farmers have knowledge of it.
  • Farmers have secure access to sufficient areas of land on which to grow trees.
  • Farmers are confident of being able to control risks, such as fire, pests, theft.

Applying the EEA approach for assessing the local FEASIBILITY for agroforestry enterprise

In addition to their ability to provide cover and thereby reduce soil erosion, trees have inherent ecological advantages over agricultural crops, such as utilising solar radiation more efficiently, exploiting nutrients and water from deep within the soil profile and greater ability to survive drought (Ffolliot, 1995). However, promotion of small scale forest product enterprises is only one possible strategy for sustainable land management and there is no guarantee that forest based enterprises can contribute to development or conservation in all situations (Wollenberg, 1998c). In Tonga, for example, where indigenous agroforestry systems are rapidly giving way to commercial cultivation of pumpkin squash for export (PRAP, 1999) it is unlikely that agroforestry enterprises could compete economically.

The EEA approach described in this paper may be useful for assessing the feasibility of agroforestry enterprises in any particular target area and thereby avoid wasting extension effort in inappropriate situations. If, on the basis of a topical PRA (Step 2 of the procedure outlined below), the prospects for creating the five pre-conditions for agroforestry enterprises appeared to be uneconomic or physically impossible, other avenues for achieving sustainable use of sloping land could be pursued.

Applying the EEA approach for planning and implementing local level agroforestry EXTENSION programs

The conceptual framework for applying the EEA approach for planning and implementing an agroforestry extension program is depicted in Figure 1. Despite the stepwise process indicated in Figure 1, no hierarchy in the enabling conditions is intended. According to the EEA concept all pre-conditions need to be achieved simultaneously to result in spontaneous agroforestry enterprises (Byron, 2001).

Figure 1: Conceptual framework for using the EEA approach to guide the design of extension programs for agroforestry.

Methodology for designing an agroforestry extension program based on EEA

There are five steps involved in the process of planning and implementing an agroforestry promotion program based on EEA (Figure 2). They are (1) determine the boundaries and scale; (2) analyse the context for agroforestry as perceived by farmers in the target area in terms of the five key pre-conditions listed above; (3) identify the forms of intervention most needed to alleviate the constraints identified; (4) apply the chosen interventions and; (5) monitor and evaluate the impact of those interventions on farmer decision making. The sequence of steps outlined conforms broadly to the basic steps in other approaches to enquiry and problem solving in the natural resources context (e.g., Wilson and Morren 1990; Clark et al, 1997).

Step 1: Decide on boundaries and scale

The most appropriate scale for designing interventions using the concept of enabling environment is likely to be at the local to regional scale, or in the Vietnamese context, Commune to District level. The objective in deciding the scale is that there should be as little variation as possible within the chosen area in social and economic conditions, market forces, policy influences, transport facilities and other conditions.

Figure 2: Five steps in the process of designing an agroforestry extension program based on EEA.

Step 2: Describe the actual conditions within the chosen area (agroforestry context analysis)

The object of this step is to understand, from the farmers point of view, the current status of the five pre-conditions for agroforestry (Figure 1). In other words it must discern how farmers perceive the prevailing conditions, rather than be a reflection of official policy or ‘what is supposed to be’. It also seeks to explain farmers current agricultural and land management decision making in terms of social, economic and institutional arrangements as they are perceived by farmers. Description of current agroforestry practices and how they contribute to the household production system would be an important component. This will require some description of the entire household production system to allow the importance of the tree component to be balanced against other resources (Abel and Prinsley, 1991).

Methods therefore need to participative and farmer centred and similar to those used in PRA. This is not however a general description of the conditions for agriculture but rather a ‘topical PRA’ (Cardoso, et al 2001) designed specifically to address social, economic and institutional factors of importance to agroforestry (Figure 1). It must also include a quantification of patterns and trends in relevant parameters so that the dynamics of the local situation are understood (Izac and Sanchez, 2001). The end result of Step 2 is a description of the actual socioeconomic and institutional conditions for agroforestry and an assessment of the constraints that could most readily be alleviated with the resources available.

Step 3: Designing appropriate interventions

Information from activities carried out in Step 2 is used to decide on interventions most likely to promote spontaneous agroforestry development in the project area. Possible interventions include; improving roads and modes of transport to market, reduce taxes, charges and levies on transport of agroforestry products; provide information on alternative technologies as well as seeds, training, credit; increase the area of land available or improve security of tenure of that land (Figure 1). Other interventions could be to improve the local implementation of national policies, such as ensuring that allocation of forest land to households is carried out across the target area.

There is a decision point at the end of Step 3. If the prospects of improving the enabling environment for agroforestry appear unlikely to be achievable at a reasonable cost and within a reasonable period of time, a decision may be made to investigate other options for achieving the policy objectives of sustainable sloping land management. This recognises the fact that agroforestry is unlikely to be the best avenue for achieving sustainable sloping land management under all conditions and that other rural development options exist such as reducing households reliance on upland agriculture through job creation or making more efficient use of households’ lowland paddy fields (e.g., Sikor, 2001).

Step 4: Carry out selected intervention

Because the factors that are thought to be important to farmer decision making on agroforestry span economic, institutional and social factors (Figure 2) the scope of possible interventions is much broader than for traditional extension programs based on technology transfer.

In Step 4 the interventions selected are implemented. Some of these interventions will require close involvement with farmers, while other may not. Improving access to markets for agroforestry products, thereby improving the returns to farmers may involve repealing state trading monopolies and would not necessarily require the participation of farmers, for example.

Step 5: Monitor and evaluate the impact on farmer decision making on agroforestry

The objective in this stage is to understand how the interventions affected household decision making, i.e. to establish the linkages between farmer decision making and intervention strategy. A continuous process of participative review and adjustment should continue through the projected life of the intervention.

Possible challenges in applying EEA model for decision making on agroforestry extension

The implementation of the EEA approach described in this paper will require the establishment of partnerships between stakeholders, including farmers, researchers, extension workers and policy makers, at various levels from village to national (Izac and Sanchez, 2001). This is likely to require extensive training of extension staff in participative, farmer based methods of research, evaluation and partnership building processes.

Other obstacles that may need to be overcome in implementing this strategy through existing extension organisations in Vietnam are that some interventions that may be needed, such as land allocation policy and market structures may be considered to be outside their traditional mandate, such as occurred in Kenya (Holding and Kereko, 1997).

The EEA approach described requires a broader definition of extension than that commonly used in Vietnam in the past. This is consistent with calls in Australia to broaden the scope of extension to include the five domains (1) defining research and development needs, (2) facilitating linkages with formal research, (3) facilitating information exchange, (4) facilitating informal research and learning and (5) developing methodologies and processes (Coutts, 2000).


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