Soytavanh Mienmany is a Lao PhD Scholar at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. Her research focuses on rural households’ decision-making and livelihood outcomes in three Northern Lao crop booms – banana, cassava and teak. She holds a Master’s Degree in Agronomy and AgroFood at SupAgro Montpellier, France, which included a research project entitled ‘Agriculture beyond the oil palm development in Jambi Province, Sumatra, Indonesia’. Before starting her PhD in July 2017, Soytavanh was working at the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in the fields of land use change, resource management and rural livelihood change. This paper is co-authored with Peter Kanowski, Lisa Robins, Hilary Smith and Keith Barney.
Livelihood outcomes of rural households’ participation in the Northern Lao cassava boom
Rural Lao households are transforming from subsistence to agricultural commercialisation, facilitated by a series of Lao government policies opening up the economy to international markets. Cassava is amongst the most recent of a series of boom crops in Laos, reflecting increasing global demand for starch-based products. The livelihood outcomes of households’ participation in this boom have been little-studied in Laos. This research explores the policy and market contexts of the Northern Lao cassava boom, the forms of households’ participation in the boom and associated livelihood outcomes, and the policy implications for the Lao Government’s promotion of green growth and rural development. This study draws from conceptual frameworks representing rural change and livelihood strategies, and from a suite of qualitative methods from fieldwork in two case study villages in Xayabouly Province, with different cassava markets. Results reveal that the cassava boom has been driven by the establishment of a Chinese starch factory and a trade agreement between Laos and Thailand, together with the low price of maize and the shift to a ‘bust’ phase in its production. Smallholder households participate in cassava production through cultivation of their own and/or leased land. New livelihood opportunities emerged from the cassava boom in the two case study villages. In Village 1, most households continued cultivating cassava and have begun investing in cattle rearing, transport services, and non-agricultural activities. The trend to cattle rearing was even more apparent in Village 2, where less than half of households surveyed cultivated cassava; the majority have shifted towards cattle rearing and/or non-agricultural activities, including some directly from maize to cattle rearing. All households in both villages maintained rice cultivation for subsistence and/or sale. Households face cassava production challenges in terms of decreasing yields, increasing crop diseases, and a shortage of planting stems. Responses have been limited to the application of chemical fertilisers by farmers and the promotion of ‘clean agriculture’ by the Lao government. These findings provide an insight into livelihood outcomes for smallholders participating in crop booms underway in Northern Laos, and illustrate both the significance and the limits of policy intervention in boom crop dynamics.
Affiliation: Australian National University