CURWOOD: In the landlocked Southeast Asian country of Laos, rice is central to the diet. The average Laotian eats about 350 pounds of rice each year - that's over two-thirds of their calorie intake. Since rice is so vital for the nation's food security, the Laotian government has worked hard to achieve self-sufficiency in the crop. The efforts have been successful. In 2001, the country stopped importing rice from its neighbors - a great achievement for a small, under-developed nation. But, as Elise Potaka finds out, rice farmers in Laos still face challenges ahead.
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POTAKA: In Fai Village, not far from Luang Prabang, the rice fields have been harvested and are being prepared for next season's crop. It's been a tough year for Fai's farmers, like Xiang Lar.
[LAR SPEAKING LAOTIAN]
VOICEOVER: Last year, my rice production was 50 bags, but this year it's only 25 bags.
[WOMEN AND MEN TALKING]
POTAKA: Xieng Lar and other farmers say they lost their first crop to rodents and had to sow a second.
POTAKA: But rodents are only one of the challenges facing Laos' rice farmers in their efforts to maintain their rice yields. In 2005, the government adopted a new forestry strategy aimed at increasing forest cover to 70 percent by 2020. The government says it wants to more sustainably manage the country's forests. Now, shifting cultivation and slash and burn agriculture are being phased out. Banthasack Vongphuthone, from the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute or NAFRI, says this has had a big impact.
[VONGPHUTHONE SPEAKING LAOTIAN]
VOICEOVER: Now land is allocated to individual farmers. Households receive around 1.5 hectares on which to cultivate crops. But in many cases there has been a loss of soil fertility, because farmers can no longer rotate their crops. They have to plant rice in the same field every year.
POTAKA: Banthasack Vongphuthone and his institute have been working with the International Rice Research Institute, or IRRI, to try and help farmers maintain their yields. Researchers, alongside villagers and local government, are experimenting with rice varieties to see which ones grow best under these new conditions. Dr. Ben Sampson is based in Luang Prabang with IRRI.
SAMPSON: My predecessors have worked on identifying cultivars, which will grow under continuous rice cultivation. Cultivars which will be able to grow in such a way that they grow fast and are harvested early, so that it allows for another crop to grow.
POTAKA: Most of the plants used in the experiments are local Laos cultivars, that is, seed varieties selected by Laotians over many years for their strength, flavor and other beneficial features. The experiments start with a choice of around 100 varieties, but through interaction with farmers this is narrowed down. Banthasack Vongphuthone says the rice with the highest yield is not always people's favorite.
[VONGPHUTONE SPEAKING ENGLISH]
VOICEOVER: Some varieties are high yield, but the grain is small. For example, for the cooking it's not good, not soft. We have the farmer field days. We invite the farmers to look at the varieties. We try five or six varieties, what is the best one for you or the village. And they select and choose.
[ROOSTER CROWS; ENGINE SOUNDS]
POTAKA: While IRRI offers farmers all different types of rice, most people here want glutinous or sticky rice varieties. The Laos style of eating uses sticky balls of rice and no chopsticks, and Dr. Ben Sampson says farmers can at first be reluctant to grow non-glutinous rice.
SAMPSON: They come and evaluate the material and say this looks good, it has the right grains size, it looks nice. But then they ask us, is it glutinous, is it non-glutinous? If it's non-glutinous, then I don't like it, I don't want it!
On the other hand we've also come across farmers who have big families, this one farmer I remember in Udom Xay Province. He told us that since he started growing non-glutinous rice, he's been able to cut down the number of months where they don't have rice in their household. He's been able to plant rubber on his upland area.
POTAKA: To try and cater to the demand for glutinous rice, researchers from IRRI are now collecting Laos rice varieties for the international rice gene bank at the IRRI headquarters in the Philippines. Laos is now the second biggest contributor to the gene bank and there are plans to develop a specific breeding program for sticky rice varieties.
[VOICES LAUGHING; VILLAGE SOUNDS]
POTAKA: Back in Fai village, villagers are called into the meeting hall over an ancient-looking sound system. They've come to discuss the outcomes from their latest work with IRRI. Generally, the higher yields are being seen in the lowland fields, and this means that farmers can now use any remaining upland or sloping areas for crops to sell. Mai Joy is the village head.
[JOY SPEAKING LAOTIAN]
VOICEOVER: Ten years ago, we only grew rice and rice products, but now we grow cash crops like sesame, corn and a local type of maize. We also grow banana and sugar cane, and any leftover space in the paddy fields can be used as household gardens.
POTAKA: For Laos' subsistence farmers, being able to generate cash is a big change. On the one hand, it offers them the chance to buy necessities and to pay for a better standard of health care and education. But Dr. Sampson says that it could also lead to the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
POTAKA: Here in Fai Village, they're experimenting with natural fertilizers like green manure to try and improve their soils. Researchers hope that this, along with education programs, will discourage the abuse of chemicals as Laos' farmers work to maintain their yields. In Luang Prabang, I'm Elise Potaka for Living on Earth.
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