by Charlotte Phillips| Jul 26, 2017

As my first time in Asia, a recent graduate of Biological Sciences and interested in the conservation of agrobiodiversity and food sustainability, I joined the CIAT Asia team at the beginning of February for a 3-month student internship in Hanoi to gain experience and knowledge. Over the three months, I investigated the agrobiodiversity results from the Carasso Project, analysing the data and recently holding focus group meetings to gain context for the results, in Tuan Giao, an eastern mountainous region of Dien Bien Phu province located in northwestern Vietnam. The data was obtained from 30 households in the Hmong ethnic minority community in TenHon village and 30 Thai ethnic minority households in Loi village, prior to my arrival.

Because there is a need to understand the potential for farm- and village-level agrobiodiversity to impact diets and nutrition in low- and middle-income countries, The Carasso project focuses on agrobiodiversity and sustainable food systems in both Peru and Vietnam, centres of origins for crop genetic diversity with high ethnic diversity. The overall project has many components and surveying in Peru has only recently begun. Current analysis focused on the similarities and differences between the agrobiodiversity of the two ethnic minority villages in Vietnam and the drivers behind these.

Along with other team members: Stefan DeHaan, Project Supervisor; Dharani Burra, Data Scientist; Trong Van Phan, GIS Specialist; and Tuan Beo, student of Vietnam National University of Science, Hanoi, we recognized trends in the data and were able to ask questions for why we saw these trends at the focus group meetings, allowing us to gain qualitative context for the results. With the support of Trong, who developed maps for varietal level plot data giving information on cultivar varieties grown, we were able to evaluate the spatial data obtained from participatory GIS.

Main points from the data analysed suggested that the Thai community had more diversity in their home gardens than the Hmong, although the Hmong had a considerable amount more of varietal and species diversity on their field plots. On a spatial level, the Hmong has a larger cropping area for field plots while Thai community members own more home gardens.

The Thai community also has much more structured land use patterns compared to the Hmong. While in the field we learnt this is due to the physical landscape in the locations of the villages. Hmong plots are also a lot farther away in terms of distance from the households than the Thai ones, resulting in many staple crops including maize and cassava being present in home gardens. This also drove the difference in diversity of the two ethnic minority groups at the varietal level. The marginal environment of the Hmong – at a higher altitude of approximately 1227 m a.s.l average compared to the Thai at 680 m a.s.l average – has led to the extremely contrasting diversity observed between the two ethnic groups. The size and positioning of the land also influenced the use of irrigated and rain-fed farming practices, by Thai and Hmong respectively. This also reflected on the paddy rice being grown by Thai and the upland rice being grown by Hmong. The areal proportion of bred varieties and landraces grown by the two communities was also influenced by the contrasts in landscape within this same valley, where the Hmong community cultivated more landraces than the Thai therefore suggesting that higher levels of agrobiodiversity are associated with marginality, i.e. rain-fed and vulnerable conditions. Overall agrobiodiversity levels, also of landraces, are still high. They survive in the informal domain, in spite of aggressive technological advisory from the government.

 

During the focus group meeting we recorded the verbal communications to analyse further, and we developed interactive games, and used satellite maps and home garden studies to create a preference ranking game. Results suggest that men and women from both communities picked plants based on preference in taste and whether the plant is high yielding. The majority of participants chose plants that were found mainly in their own community.

On a personal note, working and learning in a scientific professional environment with CIAT was not only invaluable in the terms of obtaining experience for my future prospects but also gaining the opportunity to produce research that can influence decisions that will benefit people.

I was able to travel to Vietnam and areas not typically visited by tourists. We encountered some difficulties, including field trip postponements by the government, language issues, need for translation from the indigenous Hmong or Thai language and Vietnamese to English to gain results. We also had to appreciate that studying with local people who work in the fields means we take them away from their work, and sometimes this is difficult. We also noticed a large difference in approachability between the two communities, the Thai being extremely enthusiastic about our work, and both the male and female parties turning up at the same time! On the other hand, the Hmong community were reserved and hesitant to interview due to history and marginalization from outside people and concern for government presence. Methods had to be adapted and applied in order for us to interview, including lunch with the head of the Hmong village! In the end we were able to overcome these challenges, and they only managed to enrich the overall internship experience.

Once the study is complete and the nutritional data have been analysed, it will be interesting to observe if lower agrobiodiversity really does translate to lower nutrition, or whether diversity in diets as other sources of food off of the farms may influence these results. Furthermore, comparison with the Peruvian data will give holistic insights on how to improve farming especially in marginal environments. Overall, the study can give information on how to increase dietary nutrition at the farming level.

Photos: Marie-Charlotte Bopp

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