Look at My Field
“Before, I didn’t know how to grow things well. Now I do! Look at my field! It always looks nice now” Mrs Eng, Ban Bouama.
Outside Bouama village, on the Nakai Plateau in central Laos, Mrs Eng is working her field, making the most of her morning before the midday sun becomes unbearable. Her plot is full of corn, some of which she harvests and some which she will leave to mature further. “What I take today I will feed to my chickens. Next week I will take the rest for eating at home and selling to other villagers. Then I will plant rice, intercropped with beans, for the wet season.”
Mrs Eng is a proactive farmer, and importantly for the agricultural technicians working with NTPC, she is always eager to listen and learn. Her field stands out from most of the others along the road, not only because of the tall stand of corn, but also because of what is lying all over her ground – a mulch of old vegetation.
The soil on the Nakai Plateau is poor, and its residents have traditionally grown just a few months’ supply of rice each year, farmed by slashing and burning the forest. One of the challenges of the Nam Theun 2 Multi-Purpose Project is to help people discover ways of growing greater and more sustainable supplies of food while discouraging destruction of the surrounding forest.
Mrs Eng has taken much advice from NTPC agricultural extension experts such as Dr Olayvanh Singvilay. “Eng is one of our model farmers,” he says, “and her results are helping to convince other villagers that the agricultural systems we propose can benefit them”. Average rice yields across the plateau are rising as more farmers take on these systems, and production of new crops is also increasing.
After harvesting upland rice from her 0.66 ha plot at the end of last year’s wet season, Mrs Eng left the rice straw in the field and then planted cassava on top of it. “People laughed at me for not burning the straw”, she remembers. “But the mulch protects the ground. I don’t lose any top soil when the rains come, and my plants germinate quicker than in the other fields. More water is retained also, so I need less water during the year and yet can grow more food!”.
Her cassava has been a great success. NTPC provided the initial roots but now Mrs Eng grows more every year and is supplying cassava roots to other villagers who want to imitate her. “I sell the crop to traders and use the cash to buy meat and eggs” she says. “My husband is a good fisherman, but I don’t want to eat fish every day!”
Around the edge of the field she has living fences of edible rattan, and has also planted fruit trees. This intercropping and rotation is improving the soil in her field, while at the same time providing food year-round. In all of this Mrs Eng receives support from Dr Olayvanh and the Nakai district authorities. “They give me advice and help me source seeds and fertiliser,” she says. “I get this assistance because I work with them – and now everyone can see the results.”
The challenge for NTPC and the local authorities is to get more farmers on Nakai to the same stage as Mrs Eng. She is a special case: a dynamic woman who also runs a family, helps run the village kindergarten, and has other plots of land and a home garden to tend. Not everyone has her dedication or her faith in the advice of outsiders. However, as Eng and other model farmers continue to prosper, it is hoped that more Nakai residents will learn from their success.