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The Mekong at the Confluence

Dr Jianchu Xu
World Agroforestry Centre, Beijing Office

Panel Abstract

The Mekong region, comprising Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Yunnan Province of China is undergoing rapid changes due to economic growth, infrastructure development, trans-boundary trade and investments, and political changes. While countries in the region differ from each other in terms of political system and stage of economic development, they are becoming integrated with each other at a rapid pace through economic interlinkages and ecological impacts. An important facet in this picture are land use changes, especially in the mountainous Upper Mekong region which impact not only on livelihoods and ecosystem services in the immediate surroundings but also in the downstream parts of the Mekong region. One of the most dramatic changes is the change from traditional land uses such as shifting cultivation to the modern land uses, especially to the expansion of monoculture crops such as maize and rubber.

The objective of the panel is to show how the upland and lowland parts of the Mekong region are linked with each other, and to introduce approaches and methodologies utilized by ICRAF, CIFOR and CDE for a better understanding and monitoring of large-scale change processes. The Panel will also explore more sustainable alternatives to the current change scenario.


Paper 1: Mekong at the confluence: highland-lowland linkages under global change

Dr Jianchu Xu
World Agroforestry Centre, Beijing Office

There are many Mekongs- the river, the river basin, and the region. The Mekong Region comprises of the five countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – plus China’s Yunnan Province. The territorial area is 2.3 million km2 which is home to a rapidly growing population of about 260 million people. The major river basins of the region – from east to west – are the Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Mekong and Red. Challenges related to the region include: growth in water, energy and food demand, altering of natural flows, and maintaining wetland, riverine and fishery ecosystems, climate change threats to the health of ecosystems and local societies. New roadways, railways, waterways, and airways are being constructed. Warmer temperature and frequent extreme climatic events are being observed. Increasing transboundary flows of capitals, people, forest and agricultural products are being promoted. Al these processesl have consequences for landscapes and livelihoods in the region. We link biophysical and socioeconomic transformations to regional governance issues and social consolidation through highland-lowland linkage and water-food-energy nexus.


Paper 2: A landscape mosaics approach for characterizing swidden systems from a REDD+ perspective

Cornelia Hett
Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)

Swidden agriculture is often deemed responsible for deforestation and forest degradation in tropical regions, yet swidden landscapes are commonly not visible on land cover/use maps, making it difficult to prove this assertion. For a future REDD+ scheme, the correct identification of deforestation and forest degradation  and linking these processes to land use is crucial. However, it is a key challenge  to distinguish degradation and deforestation from temporal vegetation dynamics inherent to swiddening. We present an approach for spatial delineation of swidden systems based on landscape mosaics. Furthermore we introduce a classification for change processes based on the change matrix of these landscape mosaics. Our approach is illustrated by a case study in Vienkham district in northern Laos. Over a 30-year time period, the swidden landscapes have increased in extent and they have degraded, shifting from long crop cycles to short cycles. From 2007 to 2009 degradation within the swidden  system accounted for half od all the landscape mosaics change processes. Pioneering shifting cultivation did not prevail. The landscape mosaics approach could be used in a swidden compatible monitoring, reporting and verification system for a future REDD+ framework.


Paper 3: Assessing trade-offs in ecosystem services and socioeconomic impacts from land use change in Laos and Cambodia

Grace Wong
Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

Laos and Cambodia are two of the smallest, but fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia and market liberalization policies have propelled both countries along parallel and frenetic development paths. Over the past two decade in particular, an influx of agriculture-based investments has transformed rural landscapes from complex mosaics of forests and mixed smallholder agriculture to large blocks of commercial mono-crop plantations.

There are clear trade-offs of ecosystem services and impacts on social-economic systems in these rapidly changing landscapes. However, such information is rarely considered in land use decisions due to the lack of accessible and comparable ecological and economic information.  The objective of this research thus is to generate information linking ecosystem services and socio-economic impacts for land use decision-making.

Our research attempts to link selected ecosystem services and socio-economic aspects to spatial assessments of land use change in two landscapes in Laos and Cambodia.  This involves: 1) selection of a set of relevant indicators to capture socio-economic assets at both the local- (village) and landscape-levels; 2) economic values of selected ecosystem services through meta-analysis; and 3) assessment of externalities caused by land use change and crop intensification in a spatially explicit way. Our goal is to contribute to the question of winners and losers who have a stake in and can influence land use change in our case study areas.  This information will be relevant to countries such as Myanmar where similarly rapid land use change is happening.


Paper 4: Risky economics of rubber plantations

Dr Antje Ahrends
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Soaring rubber prices have led to rapid land use conversion to rubber in mainland SE Asia. Using rubber maps based MODIS Terra 16-day composite time-series NDVI products we show that as much of the ‘traditionally suitable’ environmental space for rubber is now occupied, plantations have spread into increasingly marginal environments. Between 2004 and 2010, plantations expanded at >875 km2 yr-1 into areas where there are environmental risks to rubber production. Currently 72% of plantations are located in marginal environments where yields and/or the harvesting period may be reduced due to environmental stresses, and 57% of plantation area is located in areas where there may be a risk of unsustainable production due to groundwater depletion, erosion, frost or typhoons. In 2013 typhoons destroyed plantations worth US$ >250 million in Vietnam alone; these risks may further increase with climate change. Cash-crops such as rubber are currently the main drivers of forest loss in continental SE Asia. Our findings demonstrate large-scale conversion of forests and other ecologically important habitat in areas where the environmental and long-term economic costs of planting rubber may outweigh the short-term gains, i.e. where loss-loss scenarios may occur. This highlights an urgent need for systematic monitoring of the spread of rubber and associated impacts on biodiversity, ecosystem services and livelihoods to underpin the formulation of appropriate policy interventions.


Paper 5: Agroforestry alternatives to shifting cultivation in Myanmar

Prof. Dr Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt
World Agroforestry Center

Shifting cultivation is still widespread in Myanmar, mainly practiced by ethnic minorities in the uplands, especially in the highlands of northern Myanmar. According to the Forest Resource Assessment of 1990 by the Myanmar Forest Department, the shifting cultivation area in the country was estimated at 22.8%. As in most other countries, where shifting cultivation is practiced, the official attitude in Myanmar towards shifting cultivation is negative. The Myanmar Forest Policy gives the directive, “to discourage shifting cultivation practices causing extensive damage to the forests through adoption of improved practices for better food production and a better quality of life for shifting cultivators “. This policy can, however, provide the entry point for promoting agroforestry as an alternative to shifting cultivation. Though shifting cultivation systems can provide for the livelihoods and food security of people when enough land is available for accommodating long fallow periods, pressure on land caused by increasing population numbers can lead to a shortening of fallow periods, declining yields, and ultimately less sustainable livelihoods and lower food security. In a situation like this, farmers often adopt permanent cropping systems based on the currently marketable cash crop and relying on heavy inputs of agrochemicals. Governments are mostly supportive of these changes. Agroforestry systems which substitute nutrient cycling between tree and crop layers for burning of woody biomass or use of chemical fertilizer as a means of maintain productivity, can be a more sustainable alternative.