Bong tree farming raises income of former rice farmers in Laos

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Bong tree farming raises income of former rice farmers in Laos


Workers are weeding for plantation Pakse, Laos.

Farmers in Laos are rediscovering the value of a traditional crop – the bark of the bong tree. Because the once-abundant bong trees are now on the endangered species list, smallholders are establishing profitable plantations to meet the growing demand for the aromatic bark.

Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, neighbouring Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam. The Samouay district in the south – a mountainous area 1,000 metres above sea level – is home to the Ta Oi ethnic group. Until 2013, residents of Samouay were living in complete isolation, but life changed when an all-weather access road was built. It has brought increased access to the region and also means that goods can now be exported far more effectively.

Farmers in the area make a living growing rice in the uplands and collecting non-timber forest products, mostly the bark of the bong tree. But rice production is low (approximately one ton per hectare), which means 50 per cent of households have little or no rice for two or more months a year.

In the uplands where there is extensive rice cultivation, farmers use the slash-and-burn method with the ash providing soil nutrients. They combine this with the practice of ‘shifting cultivation', leaving the land fallow for ten years or more and allowing the vegetation to re-grow. Together, the two techniques have helped improve soil fertility and productivity.

However, a number of factors are contributing to the shortfall in rice. These include a growing population, the recent expansion of industrial crops (such as rubber and eucalyptus) and large-scale commercial agriculture businesses on land formerly used for rice cultivation.

Growing demand for bong bark

While slash-and-burn may benefit rice farming, the once abundant bong forests in the Samouay district have been destroyed to the extent that mature trees are no longer found in this area. However, in recent years the demand for bong in Vietnamese and Chinese markets has grown because it has many uses.

Bong bark contains gum and aromatic oils used to make incense sticks for temples throughout South and Southeast Asia. It's also found in mosquito coils and in the glue for carton or particleboard production. And mixed with soil the bark can be modelled and moulded into statues and household items.

Bong can provide additional income for farmers, but increased demand and slash-and-burn have put the plant on the endangered species list. In turn, this has adversely impacted the livelihoods of farmers in the upland areas.

The benefits of plantations

To address the many challenges, in 2008 the IFAD-funded Sustainable Natural Resource Management and Productivity Enhancement Project started working with the Provincial and District Agriculture and Forestry Offices. Together, they supported a sub-project for commercial bong tree nurseries in the Samouay and Taoye districts. Previously, local farmers had tried to grow bong, but they didn't have the necessary technical knowledge, nor did they fully realize the potential benefits of bong plantations.

As part of an initial pilot of the sub-project in March 2011, 425 farming households in both districts formed groups to plant one-hectare plots of bong trees. The project also supported sustainable land-use planning. It issued permanent land certificates to help ward off land concessions, constructed gravity irrigation schemes, established bong tree nurseries, and provided ‘revolving' funds for cultivating crops and planting trees.

All group members were trained in upland crop cultivation and specifically, planting and managing bong tree plantations. Farmers were also taught to harvest bong bark sustainably, which involves peeling the bark five times a year rather than cutting it. And the project supported intercropping bong with upland rice and cassava. This technique ensures food security and income until the bong bark can be harvested, which is typically in the fourth year.

Growing bong has since created an alternative source of income for farmers, while reducing shifting cultivation and minimizing carbon emissions from the burning of vegetation.

The two bong nurseries established by technical service centres produce 500,000 plants per year. The nurseries sell bong to farmer-producer groups for 1,000 Laotian kip (US$0.12) per plant. Another 15 nurseries have been set up by the groups, cultivating an additional 500,000 seedlings per year to sell to other farmers in other regions. This has allowed the groups to earn a profit, be self-sufficient and more importantly, maintain the production cycle.

The success of the project has generated huge interest from farmers in the region. Almost 750 households (including nearly 300 headed by women) have joined the production groups. By 2013, bong trees had been planted on well over 700 farms, far surpassing the 425-hectare target. And increased industrial demand for bong bark, together with better marketing, has increased its value from 2,500 kip ($0.31) per kg in 2011 to 5,000 kip ($0.62) per kg in 2013. More competition from Vietnamese and Lao traders has also contributed to the increase.

For the average farmer, one hectare of bong can generate an annual income of about 8 to 10 million kip ($985 to $1,232) and yield bark for up to 50 years, improving farmers' livelihoods and economic security. Bong tree plantations also directly support reforestation in the area, an important initiative to reduce the effects of climate change.

Moving up the value chain

The project is currently conducting a value-chain study on bong bark to track its movement from Laos to other countries. To generate more income for farmers, the project intends to set up bark processing plants in the Saravan and Savanakhet provinces. They will then link directly to the international export market. The project is also working to develop an incense stick-processing unit to generate income in local communities.  And it is exploring how communities can export the finished product directly to big suppliers in the region.

This intervention is an excellent example of how rural communities and smallholder farmers can increase their incomes while conserving natural resources. Its success will be expanded and scaled up to other upland areas in Laos.

The challenge in the future will be to sustain the production and processing of large quantities of bong bark in Laos before it is exported to other countries, so that the producing country reaps more of the benefits, and to encourage Lao entrepreneurs to invest in the bong value chain.