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Laos
 
 

Landlocked and mountainous Lao People's Democratic Republic is slowly opening to the world. Agriculture is the main activity for most of its population and a key sector to develop in order to reduce the significant rural poverty. Apart from some rice irrigated schemes along the Mekong river, rainfed farming is predominant and harvests are regularly affected by drought. Crop diversification, in particular with legume crops, access to improved seeds and better management of natural resources are some of the ways to develop Lao family farming.


1 out of 4 - Children are underweight in Laos

10% - Share of agricultural land in Laos

8 out of 10 – People in Laos who live off smallholder agriculture

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General context

Laos, one of the few remaining communist states, is a landlocked, mountainous country with a population of less than 7 million but of great ethnic diversity. Laos is slowly opening up to the world which may help improve its low human development records. A third of the population is considered poor and a quarter of children under five are underweight.

Widely covered by largely unspoilt tropical forest, no more than 10% of the land, mostly located in the narrow, fertile floodplain of the Mekong river, is suitable for agriculture, which nevertheless provides around 80% of employment.

Laos' main staple food is rice, grown in the Mekong floodplain but also on uphill slash-and-burn fields. Relative self-sufficiency was achieved only in recent years as rice production doubled over 1991-2011 (World Bank). Yet, frequent droughts, especially in the North and Central Laos, mean that a large share of rural families are regularly food insecure for several months before the harvest. Vegetables, fruit, spices and cotton are also grown. Agriculture in this mountainous country is limited by the shortage of arable land, about 10% of the total, a majority of which is planted to rice. With a dense river network and forest cover, fish and forest resources are very important in the Lao diet. 

Laos' richness in water resources (including production of hydroelectricity for Thailand - see Nam Theun 2 dam in Central Laos), timber wood, biodiversity and mining resources could help boost its development, as shown from their annual growth rate being above 6% since 2004, even though inclusiveness and sustainability of its exploitation remain under scrutiny.

ICRISAT research in Laos

To tackle Lao's widespread rural poverty, development of its smallholder agriculture is crucial. and should not only focus on rice, but also on other crops and agroforestry farming systems, as diversification will improve the family's resilience and nutrition.

ICRISAT's current research with Laos focuses on how to improve the resilience and productivity of rainfed rice-based cropping systems (http://asia.ifad.org/web/icrisat-1363/about) in remote Northern and Southern areas. Various varieties of groundnut, pigeonpea and chickpea are tested on-farm to identify what nitrogen-enriching legume crops could be promoted for intercropping with upland rice.

On sloping lands, soil erosion can be a big issue since shifting cultivation is widespread. Improving the way farmers manage soil, water and other natural resources is important to limit land degradation as shown in the Tad Fa benchmark watershed in Northern Thailand. ICRISAT regularly shares lessons learnt from its regional watershed research with Lao farming communities for better land and water conservation.

Public-private partnerships are important to link small farmers to markets, so that farmers fetch better incomes from their work (see for instance the Sustainable Natural Resource Management and Productivity Enhancement Project).

Photo: ICRISAT
Chickpea, a new crop for upland rice farmers in Northern Laos, can help improve soil fertility.
Photo: ICRISAT
Early-maturing pigeonpea varieties are of great interest for Lao farmers [IFAD 1363 project]. This legume crop can be intercropped with upland rice.
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