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Extension approaches for small farms in Bhutan

Salamjee has changed its farming landscape by introducing sustainable land management technologies (© Chencho Norbu)
Salamjee has changed its farming landscape by introducing sustainable land management technologies
© Chencho Norbu

Located at the eastern end of the Himalayas, Bhutan has a landscape that ranges from subtropical plains in the south to 7,000 metre high mountains in the north. The geographical diversity, combined with equally diverse climate conditions, makes the country ideally suited to growing a wide range of cereals (rice, maize and wheat) and fruit crops (apple, pear and oranges) throughout the year. But varying environmental conditions and isolated farming communities scattered across valleys, ridges and slopes has made the provision of extension services a serious challenge.

From Farmer Field Schools to Participatory Rural Appraisals, a number of extension approaches have been introduced in the past, but according to Chencho Norbu, director of agriculture at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, most have failed. "Many communities have strong social bonds and are not very receptive to new ideas and technologies," Norbu explains. But the community of Salamjee, in Dagana Dzongkhag district, has changed its farming landscape by introducing sustainable land management technologies.

Fighting soil fertility loss

Landslides, gullies, sheet and rill erosion, declining soil fertility, exposed bed rock and shallow top soil were just some of the problems Salamjee's farmers faced as a result of severe land degradation, undermining the sustainability of farming as a livelihood. Steep slopes, high rainfall, and a lack of mechanisms to prevent erosion were identified as causes of land degradation by a group of experts from the Renewable Natural Resources Research and Development Centre (RNR-RDC) in Bajo.

With financial backing from the UN's Development Programme's GEF Small Grants Programme, the RNR-RDC adopted Salamjee as a pilot village. In consultation with the farmers, the project gradually built on local practices rather than implementing brand new approaches. By evolving local practices, the project was aiming to institutionalise sustainable land management techniques into the local farming system.

The project gradually built on local practices rather than implementing brand new approaches (© Chencho Norbu)
The project gradually built on local practices rather than implementing brand new approaches
© Chencho Norbu

Steep farmland was contoured and stone risers were added, hedge rows were planted with fruit crops including litchi, citrus, guava and mango, a water diversion channel was constructed, and a multi-purpose tree species nursery was established. Frequent visits to the village to monitor activities and provide advice by scientists and extension agents from the RNR-RDC played a key role in changing the mindset of the community. The impacts are visible: steep, degraded farmland with gullies and rills has turned into terraced fields with stone risers and grass slips with edible bamboo plants and fruit trees along the contours.

Building community capacity

To build community capacity in farmland management and ensure that sustainable land management techniques continue to be implemented, the Salamjee Phashing Zingchoung Tshogpa group was formed. The RNR-RDC is also working to replicate the same approach in several other villages.

In eastern Bhutan, farmers are growing increasing amounts of fruit and vegetables, increasing incomes and diversifying and enriching diets. "Over the past couple of decades, farmers have been growing and consuming more varieties of vegetables compared to a couple of decades ago when there were only a few popular ones, such as radish, chilli and turnip," Norbu explains. "This owes much to the efforts of horticulture development initiatives of the government, which have introduced, evaluated and released many new crops for cultivation by farmers."

Pear, persimmon, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, green mustard, cabbage, onion and improved varieties of citrus and walnut, are among the new fruits and vegetable varieties that have been introduced. Supported by the Japan International Corporation Association (JICA), experts from the Wyengkhar RNR-RDC, under the Horticulture Research and Development Project, provide 'lead' farmers with practical training sessions on grafting, pruning, thinning, nursery raising, mother plant selection and roguing (removing inferior or defective plants from a crop). These farmers then go back to their farms and establish orchards and seed production sites, with assistance from RNR-RDC experts. "The sites are regularly visited to provide farmers with advice as it is needed," Norbu adds.

Farmers have received practical training sessions on grafting and pruning (© RDC-Wyenkhar)
Farmers have received practical training sessions on grafting and pruning
© RDC-Wyenkhar

Building on success

The project has proved so popular that more than 290 farmers have requested similar support in the last two years. "As of now, about ten different vegetable crop species are being popularly cultivated and sold in local markets," says Norbu. "This is excluding many indigenous vegetables that are being grown or collected from the wild."

Across the globe there are numerous approaches and models of extension. According to Norbu, most of these are location specific and require a lot of time and resources. "It is important to understand the geographical limitations of farms," he explains, "and be sensitive to the social and cultural values of a farming community before new approaches are introduced. In order to effectively deliver extension services, I personally believe in blending a professional and multi-disciplinary top-down approach with participation of farming communities."

Written by: Chencho Norbu, Director of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Bhutan

Date published: March 2012

 

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