Land-use policies in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and southern China are leading to an increasingly homogenous landscape, dominated by rubber trees. Yet the impact of these policies on the food security and economic wellbeing of farmers could hardly be more different.
In parts of Thailand and China, the government has provided tree seedlings, secure land tenure, loans, and technical expertise to help local farmers take up rubber production and move out of poverty. In Cambodia and Laos, in the absence of government oversight, foreign companies have initiated a variety of contractual arrangements with local farmers. Often, farmers have not benefited from the profits derived from rubber production. In some cases, they have even lost their land.
It is clear that policies that seek only to increase tree cover can have a range of impacts on smallholders’ livelihoods, varying from beneficial to destructive. And even the environmental effects are poorly understood. Little is known about rates of carbon cycling, either from traditional shifting cultivation or from rubber plantations. Given these uncertainties, it is risky to predict the environmental consequences of a change from one type of land use to the other.
It is, thus, perhaps impossible to suggest land-use policies that will ensure both a reduction in carbon emissions and an improvement in smallholder livelihoods. Nonetheless, emerging carbon-finance schemes are being developed across the tropics to provide economic incentives for more rural communities to transition away from shifting cultivation to other types of land use, including rubber.
A report coauthored by East-West Center Senior Fellow Jefferson Fox suggests that no “one-size-fits-all” policy is appropriate for the region as a whole. In some locations, standing forests exist that can be managed with a focus on protecting and improving carbon sequestration. In other locations, shifting cultivation may be the most rational land use for farmers from both economic and environmental perspectives. Policies should help farmers maintain or rehabilitate traditional farming systems, with fallow periods that are long enough to allow regeneration of mature secondary forests.
In still other locations, secondary forest fallows will be converted to permanent agriculture, largely dominated by tree crops such as rubber, coffee, and cashews. Policies should aim not only to increase carbon sequestration but also to improve the livelihoods of subsistence farmers and to protect other environmental services such as biodiversity and soil and water conservation. Such policies must provide economic support for small-scale, diversified, agroforestry systems, i.e., multi-storied agricultural systems that preserve the species diversity and ecological functions of a forest.
The report, authored by Jefferson Fox, Jean-Christophe Castella, and Alan D. Ziegler, is titled Swidden, rubber, and carbon: Can REDD+ work for people and the environment in montane mainland Southeast Asia? It was published in 2011 by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS).