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  • Forests and fungi: Mekong communities reap the rewards of a 500 million-year-old partnership

Forests and fungi: Mekong communities reap the rewards of a 500 million-year-old partnership

Marasmius purpureostriatus. Photo by Steve Axford/ICRAF
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By Andrew Stevenson, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World Blog

We are only just beginning to realise how much life on earth depends on the partnership between fungi and forests. A recent video, released to mark the International Day of Forests on 21 March highlights new research into fungi in the Mekong region, including how local communities can benefit from harvesting and cultivating mushrooms – and how these benefits are linked to protecting forests.

Most people would agree that forests are a vital part of a healthy planet: around 1.6 billion people directly depend on forests for their livelihoods, and forest trees help provide us with healthy soils, clean water and even breathable air. The role of fungi is less well known. Yet without fungi, forests would not exist. In fact, without fungi, it’s unlikely that there would be much life on land at all – over 500 million years ago, it was a partnership between fungi and plants that allowed marine plants to colonize the land. Today, fungi continue to help forests grow by supplying trees with nutrients and breaking down organic matter.

Researchers examine fungi samples in Yunnan, China. Photo by Catherine Marciniak/ICRAF

Fungi are also a vital source of nutrition and income for many communities around the world, including in the Greater Mekong region, which comprises parts of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. This area contains an astonishing variety of fungi, including many species which produce edible and medicinal mushrooms. Yet according to World Agroforestry Centre mycologist Dr Samantha Karunarathna, “while local people are keen to make use of this resource, they often don’t know how to identify wild mushrooms that are safe to consume – and they can struggle to sell their harvest for a good price.”

In response, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB) are training local communities in mushroom identification, cultivation, harvesting and trade, and  have established the Southeast Asian Fungal Network to help communities and researchers share information. As ICRAF soil biologist Dr Peter Mortimer points out, “the project aims to give Mekong communities not only a reliable source of income and nutrition but also an incentive to conserve natural forests, which are the source of many of the most valuable mushroom species”.

Marasmius purpureostriatus. Photo by Steve Axford/ICRAF

ICRAF and KIB’s work on fungi in the Mekong region has been endorsed by the Mountain Futures Initiative, an international effort to find and support new projects that can improve the lives of mountain communities and safeguard their environments. The Initiative aims to plant the seeds of brighter, more sustainable futures in mountain regions around the world by bringing scientific research and traditional knowledge together.

The two organisations are also working together to catalogue the Mekong region’s fungal diversity: over 3,000 species are known to exist in this region, and over the past five years, 20% of the species collected have been new to science. However, continued deforestation means that these unique varieties of fungi – and their potential applications in medicine, agriculture and industry – are rapidly being lost. National and international support for further research and conservation efforts is therefore urgently needed to safeguard the future of this ancient partnership between forests and fungi.

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  • Challenges and opportunities for sustainable rubber in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

Challenges and opportunities for sustainable rubber in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

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Authors: Kenney-Lazar, M.; Wong, G.

Key points

  • The opportunities provided by rubber cultivation in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) have been offset by sustainability challenges, such as low prices, food insecurity, land expropriation, deforestation and a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  • Smallholder rubber has had the greatest success in alleviating poverty while limiting environmental impacts and should be the preferred form of rubber production.
  • Improved and extensive credit, technical and extension services are needed to support a robust smallholder sector that cultivates rubber in ways that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.
  • Large-scale land concessions for rubber should be limited and highly regulated to prevent expropriation of rural people’s lands, unfair compensation, deforestation, agro-chemical pollution and exploitative labor practices

Series: CIFOR Infobrief no. 153

Publisher: Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia

Publication Year: 2016

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  • REDD+ politics – or why it is so difficult to tackle large-scale drivers of deforestation

REDD+ politics – or why it is so difficult to tackle large-scale drivers of deforestation

Ethiopia recently established a REDD+ national strategy. Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
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Ethiopia recently established a REDD+ national strategy. Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
Ethiopia recently established a REDD+ national strategy. Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

By Efrian Muharrom, Melaku Bekele, Cynthia Maharani, Pham Thu Thuy, Grace Wong, Maria Brockhaus, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

What challenges do REDD+ countries have in common, where do they differ? And how do a country’s politics play out in managing drivers of deforestation?

Representatives from more than a dozen countries across three continents had the rare opportunity to discuss these and other questions at a recent REDD+ knowledge-sharing event held from 8-10 June in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia.

The three-day meeting, hosted by the Wondo Genet College of Forestry and Natural Resources at Hawassa University, brought Ethiopian policymakers and practitioners together with researchers from 15 REDD+ countries in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia to present and analyze their progress. Research on REDD+ forms part of the climate change theme of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

Discussions showed that while countries develop their own approaches to REDD+, incorporating national circumstances in their policy design, the challenges they face in avoiding deforestation remain largely similar.

Timing is crucial, but it’s not everything

What challenges do REDD+ countries have in common? Photo: Bruno Locatelli/CIFOR
What challenges do REDD+ countries have in common? Photo: Bruno Locatelli/CIFOR

It would be easy to assume that early-mover countries have already progressed with REDD+ to a stage where ‘payments for performance’ can be made. However, it appears that some early-mover countries – such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea – are still struggling with policy design and implementation, meaning that late-comer countries could yet catch up.

  • Laos launched a REDD+ task force in 2008, and has conceptualized REDD+ as a shared responsibility of two ministries, but there is still the classic problem of conflict between institutions, which has created confusion. Overall, REDD+ in Laos is seen as a project, and not as policy development. Things may be changing, however, since a new prime minister assumed office on 20 April and has already issued a moratorium on timber and log exports.
  • On the African continent, Ethiopia recently finalized a REDD+ national strategy, covering REDD+ goals, governance, measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) design, and financing options. REDD+ activities in Ethiopia will be implemented with both in-country and external funding, including through agricultural intensification. The jurisdictional REDD+ project in the regional state of Oromia is now entering its final stage of implementation, with a pledge by Norway of USD 50 million.
  • Papua New Guinea is still in the first phase of REDD+ readiness, despite being one of the first countries to propose REDD back in 2005. The country’s political commitment to tackling deforestation and forest degradation has been questioned — for example, it remains the largest exporter of timber in the world, and continues to back large-scale land conversion plans under a paradigm of ‘green development’.
One key condition to move forward with REDD+ seems to be the upfront investment a country needs to make. While this is a burden for most countries in the short term, in the long term it instills a sense of ownership, as seen in the cases of Brazil. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT
One key condition to move forward with REDD+ seems to be the upfront investment a country needs to make. While this is a burden for most countries in the short term, in the long term it instills a sense of ownership, as seen in the cases of Brazil. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT

Stumbling blocks on the road to ‘transformational change’

Business-as-usual is a powerful force. Conflicting interests in the agendas of different actors involved in deforestation — across and within ministries, and across levels of governance —can be a major challenge for achieving effective, efficient and equitable REDD+.

Lack of land-use planning, unclear tenure, weak law enforcement and uncertainty over long-term funding were also found to be common challenges. Another was the lack of continuity in commitment from politicians.

Political champions for change are crucial for moving the REDD+ agenda forward. But some of these champions in REDD+ countries have not been able to generate sustainable and institutionalized pathways for change away from deforestation and forest degradation in the course of their terms.


Research on climate change will be the focus of the August Forests, Trees and Agroforestry newsletter. Sign up here to receive the regular update on FTA news.


The politics of the possible

Politics do matter when moving forward with REDD+. Analysis from Indonesia, Guyana, Burkina Faso, Nepal, Brazil and many other countries show that either the political carousel is rolling too fast within election cycles to maintain momentum for change, or the attention span of politicians is too short to carry out major reform.

One example mentioned was Indonesia, which until 2014 rapidly developed a REDD+ mechanism under the leadership of a president with a strong public commitment to mitigate climate change. During this time, a REDD+ national strategy was established, as well as a REDD+ agency with the power to coordinate across ministries, a REDD+ financial mechanism, regulations related to REDD+ implementation, MRV infrastructure and more. Policies were issued, including a peatland moratorium policy, and a one-map policy.

With a change in presidential leadership in 2014, everything seemed to change overnight. The new president, with a strong focus on strengthening governance and economic development, merged the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Forestry, dismissed the REDD+ Agency, the Climate Change National Council (DNPI), and the presidential office for development monitoring (UKP4), as the institution where the REDD+ task force was hosted. He then established a Directorate General of Climate Change Mitigation under the new Minister of Environment and Forestry, handing over the tasks of the late REDD+ Agency and DNPI.

Reactions were mixed among participants at the Addis Adaba meeting – some questioned the effectiveness of the first president’s measures in halting deforestation, considering that by 2014 Indonesia had become the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world. They argued that change under the new president presented a possibility for greater ownership over the REDD+ process within the government. Meanwhile, others argued that the changes indicated weakened political will and undermined effective REDD+ policy making. However, all participants agreed that the changes in the political configuration contribute to an unclear future for REDD+ in Indonesia.

Optimists and pessimists

REDD+ gives reason for both cautious optimism and also some skepticism.

Some countries presented successful policy responses to the problem of deforestation, with ‘command and control’ as well as ‘payments for environmental services’ (PES) being part of the more effective approaches. Others mentioned REDD+ as being adopted in education curricula, reviews of natural resource exploitation licenses causing deforestation and forest degradation, capacity-building and technology transfer on conducting forest inventories and MRV as positive policy innovations for REDD+.

One topic that stirred controversy in discussion among country representatives was the strategy of integrating REDD+ into green economy pathways, as adopted by countries such as Guyana, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Participants said that this kind of strategy can ensure that the roadmap for transformational change is more comprehensive in targeting the underlying causes of deforestation, and can help to remove perverse incentives such as subsidies for land-use change driving deforestation and forest degradation.

However, some participants shared pessimistic concerns that with the introduction of ‘green economy’ or ‘green growth’ language, attention moves away from tangible measurable carbon and non-carbon outcome performance to rather fuzzy concepts with very little REDD+ objectives within.

One key condition to move forward with REDD+ seems to be the upfront investment a country needs to make. While this is a burden for most countries in the short term, in the long term it instills a sense of ownership, as seen in the cases of Brazil and Guyana, and carries a commitment to move past the pressures of election cycles and business as usual.

In the end, political willingness to break with old habits and powerful interests was highlighted as the most crucial factor for success across all country cases. It takes optimism and commitment for a state to break away from the entrenched interests driving deforestation, and to regain autonomy by enforcing decisions that regulate large-scale international and domestic investor behavior. And it takes an empowered civil society to hold state and business accountable to their commitments and promises.

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  • Agroforestry offers sustainable alternative to worrying trend in Mekong region

Agroforestry offers sustainable alternative to worrying trend in Mekong region

Photo: Jianchu Xu/ICRAF
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By Kate Langford, originally published at Agroforestry World Blog

Photo: Jianchu Xu/ICRAF
Photo: Jianchu Xu/ICRAF

A shift towards monoculture plantations and higher chemical use is of great concern to many in the Mekong region, particularly due to the impact this is having on food security and health.

Farmers who have resisted monoculture cropping, and opted to maintain or create mixed-species agroforestry systems, are benefiting from income and food security and reduced reliance on fertilizer and pesticides.

“Rubber trees are invading fruit orchards and watershed forest,” explains Cheardsak Kuaraska, vice-dean of the Faculty of Technology and Community Development at Thaksin University in Phattalung, Thailand. “Oil palm is invading rice paddy and lowland forests, especially peat forests.” He warns that southern Thailand is now faced with a food security problem.

Kuaraska estimates that rubber and oil palm now cover 33 per cent of the province of Phattalung in Thailand. Not only are they replacing food crops, he says, they are impacting on ecosystems; farmers are using higher amounts of fertilizer which is causing damage to the environment and health problems.

Lamphoune Xyvongsa from the Faculty of Forestry at the National University of Lao explains that it is becoming more difficult for people to gather food from the forest because many natural forests have been converted to plantations.

Kuaraska and Xyvongsa are among a group of researchers and farmers from Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Viet Nam who appear in a series of 13 short films produced by the World Agroforestry Centre, discussing land-use problems in their countries and the role agroforests play in solving them.

Both believe agroforestry offers a sustainable alternative for farmers in the Mekong region; providing them with year-round income and a diversity of foods and other products while also offering many environmental benefits.

“How can we expand this knowledge to other farmers so that they can change their practice from monoculture to mixed-species?” asks Kuaraska. “Research is still necessary. We need to collaborate so that we can compare data on how one kind of farming practices is better than other kinds.

Farmers Chamni Yodkaewruang and Charus Kaewkong from Phattalung, Thailand and Pasith Pimpramote, from Vientiane in Laos, say agroforestry gives them different products at different times which can be consumed and or sold.

“Diversity creates everything,” says Yodkaewruang. “It maintains human lives.” His mixed-species orchards include fig, Alstonia, oak, Artocarpus elasticus and ironwood.

Kaewkong has replaced the rubber trees which grew around his home with durian, mangosteen, coconut and others. “We are never hungry,” he says.

Among Kaewkong’s fruit trees, he grows edible ferns and bamboo. “When my kids come back from the city they take them [bamboo shoots] to Surat Thani province. They can make 40, 50 or 70 Baht at a time. For the neighbours, if they want the bamboo shoots to make curry, they can come and take them.”

“The tall trees, the kids and grandkids can use them for house construction.”

“If I grow jujubes and if the price is down this year or there are pests, resulting in a low yield, I have another crop to sell,” Pimpramote explains. “If I grow jackfruit and the jackfruit prices are not good, I will sell tamarind.”

Witoon Chamroen, another farmer from Phattalung Province has created a rubber ‘jungle’ based on his ancestors’ knowledge. He treats his old rubber trees as ‘nursery’ trees and this mixed system gives him edible plants, material for house construction and for energy. His rubber trees still produce more latex than younger trees.

“Trees are renewable, they will never run out if we know how to use them,” says Chamroen. “It’s about creating biodiversity, becoming self-sufficient. If this is done, you will not be poor.”

In his quest to prove that multi-species cropping systems are beneficial, Naris Khamthisri, a farmer from Sakon Nakhon in Thailand has gathered information from researchers, experts and farmers from all over Thailand. He strongly believes agroforestry provides economic security, food security, food safety, job security and health.

“Farmers can earn daily, monthly, yearly incomes” from these systems and “because we produce ourselves we know how the food is produced,” stresses Khamthisri.

“If we practice agroforestry, there will be less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Our good health will follow. Good health is difficult to accomplish, and it cannot be bought.”

The use of chemicals in food production is of particular concern to Pongnapha Srina, a farmer from Nan Province in Thailand.

“When I grew maize, I used my income to buy food from the market. There was no way to know whether there was any pesticide residue in the food from the market,” she says. “I decided to grow my own. I can eat whatever I like. It is like I have my own fresh market. I can save what I used to spend on buying food. I can also eat pesticide-free food.”

The series of films give an insight into how farmers from across the Mekong region have been motivated to practice agroforestry and the many benefits they derive from it.

View the film series


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