Social dimensions of a cassava production and value-chain: Why do the poor continue with unsustainable cassava production?
Cassava trial fields in Son La, Vietnam. Photo by Hieu Trong. Grabbed from Facebook group, ACIAR Cassava Value Chain and Livelihood Program.
by Nozomi Kawarazuka| Jul 26, 2017
The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has been working with the University of Queensland (UQ) and national partners in Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia to improve the livelihoods of upland farmers engaged in the cassava value chain. Two seperate projects pull together into a program of research funded by the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) with the overall aim of increasing the profitability and sustainability of smallholder cassava production. The program has a strong emphasis on exploring the opportunities (and constraints) to achieve this by developing effective linkages between the various value-chain actors.
The research seeks to understand the opportunities and constraints facing smallholder production and marketing of cassava within different value chains – from the remote villages in northern Vietnam, intensive production zones with strong market access, to areas where cassava remains an important food crop. In each of site, the incentives and drivers for adoption of sustainable farming systems are explored with value chain actors.
Can the adoption of improved cassava technologies be increased by developing agribusiness models to better link primary value-chain actors (farmers, traders, processors) and support actors (researchers, government and non-government agencies, industry bodies)?
While the project seeks to understand the relative advantage of different interventions from an economic perspective, they are also intested in the social dimension to decision making. Nozomi Kawarazuka has been exploring this in the project sites in Vietnam with a series of in-depth interviews with men and women cassava farmers from different social groups based on age, gender and ethnicity.
— Jonathan Newby, Project Team Leader
Cassava was once a major boom commodity in rural areas in Vietnam, produced on an industrial scale to meet a growing global demand for starch, animal feed, and biofuel. However, the sustainability and livelihoods of smallholder farmers continues to be challenged by soil erosion and declining fertility leading to low productivity. In the past two years, this has been exacerbated by unstable and falling prices. The responses to these challenges differ significantly between the better-off and the poor: the better-off have shifted to producing other commodities such as coffee, cashews and pepper, while the poor continue to grow cassava with little profit or sell/rent their land to wealthy outsider investors and work for them as laborers.
Clearly the long-term consequences for the poor of a ‘backwash’ after the cassava boom are severe, which raises the questions
of why they continue with unsustainable and increasingly economically marginal cassava production, and what are poor farmers’ values and beliefs in farming? In order to identify appropriate support for them, it is essential to find answers and understand the social as well as the economic reasons behind their choices.
To explore this, 5-week case studies were undertaken in Son La and Dak Lak Province in Vietnam. In-depth interviews were conducted with 55 ethnic minority men and women respectively with a specific focus on social and gender dimensions of production and the relationships with other value-chain actors. This complemented other standard methods used in the project such as village focus group discussion, key informant interviews and large scale household surveys.
The case studies have shown that cassava production and the value-chain systems still cater to ethnic minorities in the sense that farming is based on their customary gendered farming practices, with collectors/traders offering services based on trust, which fulfills the actual needs of ethnic minority men and women.
For example, ethnic minority men are wary of taking risks, so at a study site in Dak Lak, cassava collectors or middlemen offer them informal loans which the farmers can repay with their produce. By so doing, they also secure markets to sell to. Similarly, in Son La, farmers buy fertilizer from a shop, on credit, repaying the loan after the harvest. They decide how much fertilizer to buy according to how much risk they feel they can take, rather than the amount that would maximize production or profit. Although they may therefore not buy enough to produce a good harvest, farmers value the smaller risk above the maximum possible return. Moreover, low price and low production mean that farmers risk not being able to pay back loans with the harvest, and so some ethnic minority men, being extremely scared of this situation, decide to sell or rent their land and work as labourers, which is less risky for them.
Unlike coffee, cashews and pepper, cassava is a commodity that involves informal interactions and relatively simple technologies, which may be one of the important reasons why ethnic minorities still chose to grow it. Planting materials and collectors are easily accessible through social networks and it can be grown with simple technologies. Ethnic minority men are often aware that Kinh men have confidence in adopting ‘high technologies’ while they don’t. So, in Son La, women often follow their husbands’ decisions and if their husbands don’t have confidence in new technologies, women support their husbands by not trying new practices.
A gendered labour shortage is a problem for the poor. In Vietnam, a husband and wife typically work together in the same field, with men doing heavy work and women the lighter work. Neither of them can manage cassava farming alone. However, poor families often have a shortage of male labour as men work as hired labourers. In this situation, it is almost impossible to carry on farming with female labour only, and for this reason some families rent out their land to investors.
These findings have implications for designing interventions for more sustainable cassava production and value-chains. If sustainable farming requires higher investments and technologies and involves formal systems such as bank-loans and trainings from the government, it is less likely to be adopted by ethnic minorities, as it does not fit with their values and beliefs in farming. The findings also bring a strong message to agricultural projects that aim at linking farmers to market. One reason why cassava is attractive for the ethnic minority farmers is that value-chain actors offer informal services. Farmers, collectors and shop keepers are interdependent: they share risks and profits with each other. For these reasons, while linking farmers to global markets with fewer actors is often seen as an ideal, it is still a big challenge for the minorities and there is a need for somebody who can offer informal support as the
collectors and middlemen do. Understanding these relationships between farmers and different primary and support actors is important so they can be harnessed to provide better information and services to cassava farmers to manage production and marketing risk.
The case studies were conducted with ACIAR partners The following comments are reflections from participant researchers from the partner organizations: Northern Mountainous Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute (NOMAFSI), and Tay Nguyen University.
Phan Huy Chuong (NOMAFSI): In study sites in Son La, farmers depend on their own knowledge and experience exchanged among the villagers while there are very limited information and training opportunities from outside the village. In some villages, there are no outstanding households which could be an economic model for others. Young people often left the village to work as labours. While farmers are hardworking, they often do not invest in farming, as they are afraid of debt. The person who decides the big things in the house, such as changing crops, selling and buying something, is usually a man. Motorbike is a means of transport but women often cannot drive on sloppy and bumpy roads, creating gendered constraints in farming.
Do Trong Hieu (NOMAFSI): Soil conditions of the study sites in Son La are extremely degraded. A crop rotation experiment with cassava and legumes can be useful to mitigate soil erosion. There are significant differences between rich and poor. Rich farmers often take the initiative in finding new varieties and testing new farming practices. Men from the households with good economic conditions have progressive view on gender equality. They think the power level of husband and wife in the family is equal, or the husband’s power is only one step higher than women’s power.
Do Thi Kieu An (Tay Nguyen University): Cassava appears to be a crop for the poor who cannot afford to grow other high-value crops. Although there are cassava factories in Ea Sar and Dang Kang communes, cassava growers receive very little support for and information on cassava production and care. Furthermore, agricultural extension services rarely organize training courses for cassava growers. These are areas where the project can address.