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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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  • New hope for agroforestry in Myanmar

New hope for agroforestry in Myanmar

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agroforestry-has-a-long-history-in-myanmarBy Prasit Wangpakapattanawong, originally posted at Agroforestry World Blog

Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a newly democratic country. Centuries before, this country was rich in culture, natural resources and competent citizens, the latter likely influenced by the colonial government of Britain. Visiting the former capital, Yangon, in the rainy season gives you a sense of how green the city is, with the intense monsoon rains making you appreciate why the citizens wear sandals.

After decades of military rule, everything seemed to be possible when the country held a general election in 2015. Its citizens, especially the younger generation, seemed to beam with hope for a bright and prosperous future, as the country had been economically far behind neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. Being sandwiched between the two giants of Asia—China and India—can, in my opinion, be both a blessing and a curse, as the country wants to stand on its own feet but still relies heavily on foreign investment.

The former military government forced universities to be scattered all over the country to prevent students from staging protests in the former capital. About 30 minutes from the current capital, Nay Pyi Daw, more than 370 km north of Yangon, there are three universities: Yezin Agricultural University; Yezin University of Forestry; and the University of Veterinary Science, Yezin. The current political situation should allow clever minds in these universities to blossom and help steer the country in the right direction.


Also read: “Scientists without borders”: ICRAF’s Director General on CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees Agroforestry


Taking a road trip from the former capital to the current one leads through gently rolling landscapes, flanked in the distance by north-south mountain ranges. The greenness of the roadside agricultural land and sparsely-forested areas makes someone with an agroforestry background imagine endless possibilities for various kinds of agroforestry practices: agro-silvicultural, silvopastoral and agro-silvopastural. This is just a part of the story of where agroforestry can be appropriate. The country also features diverse ecological zones where agroforestry can certain play a vital role, from the dry central area through the extremely long (and vulnerable) coastline to high mountain ranges. The above-mentioned universities can be a driving force for all things agricultural and forestry. Some Thai universities, too, such as Chiang Mai University where I am based, could play a strategic role in providing technical support.

peatland-restoration-role-of-agroforestry-by-atiek-widayati-icraf-1-638
Click to view presentation

A team of specialists from ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre—Horst Weyerhaeuser, capacity and institutional building specialist; Robert Finlayson, interim head of global communications; and I, Thailand country coordinator—recently met with high-ranking agricultural and forestry officials, who were extremely positive about the possibility of creating an inventory of existing agroforestry practices in the country and introducing new ones. It has been difficult in the past to do this owing to the sectoral division between the two departments. According to the officials, ICRAF can help bridge this divide.

Internationally-funded local NGOs are equally excited, as are foreign organizations—such as the European Union, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit and the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation—which are also looking forward to seeing on-the-ground implementation of agroforestry for food security, environmental protection and climate-change mitigation and adaptation. This demonstrates a well-defined niche for ICRAF as capacity builders in agroforestry policies and practices, agroforestry inventory compilers and designers of agroforestry systems.

Yet there is only one ICRAF project in Myanmar, run from the East and Central Asia Program based in Kunming, China. To provide more support to the smallholders and government of Myanmar, ICRAF needs to prepare more ground very carefully with local and international partners, which will take some time and resources, so that Myanmar can improve the livelihoods of its millions of smallholding farmers, secure its food supply and sustain the services provided by the environment.

This research relates to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

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  • Challenges and opportunities for sustainable rubber in Myanmar

Challenges and opportunities for sustainable rubber in Myanmar

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Authors: Kenney-Lazar, M.; Wong, G.

Key points

  • Smallholder rubber production in southern Myanmar has alleviated rural poverty, while large-scale plantation concessions in the north have led to land expropriation and limited livelihood options for rural people.
  • Policies should support smallholder rubber production over large-scale models, while addressing the economic challenges that smallholders face, such as low quality and quantity of latex production.
  • All forms of rubber production require regulation to ensure that land use rights of rural people are not infringed upon, forests are not cleared to make way for rubber plantations and the use of agrochemicals is limited.
  • A diversity of subsistence and cash crops should be planted – at the landscape level and in plots using agroforestry – to retain higher levels of biodiversity and protect against price crashes.

Geographic: Myanmar

Series: CIFOR Infobrief no. 154

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

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  • Assessment of governance mechanisms, livelihood outcomes and incentive instruments for green rubber in Myanmar

Assessment of governance mechanisms, livelihood outcomes and incentive instruments for green rubber in Myanmar

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Authors: Kenney-Lazar, M.

Over the past decade, rubber cultivation has expanded throughout the Mekong region, from established centers of production in Thailand, China and Vietnam to new sites in Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Rubber has brought opportunities for increased incomes and livelihood improvement as well as social and environmental risks. The2012 drop in rubber prices has sent the sector into disarray, halting the expansion of rubber and constraining the ability of farmers and companies to profit. This study examines how rubber production in Myanmar is governed, especially the socio-ecological dynamics of varying forms of production: smallholding, contract farming and large-scale estate plantations. Based upon an analysis of secondary literature and interviews with key stakeholders, it was found that rubber production in Myanmar is for the most part not ‘green’, meaning that it has not reduced poverty and protected ecosystem services and forested areas. The price crash has prevented most smallholding farmers from increasing their income. Wages on large-scale plantations have been low and only a limited amount of work for Myanmar people is available. Large-scale estates have been developed on land expropriated from communities and have replaced forested areas that provide important ecosystem services to local communities. The paper argues that if rubber is to be truly green then significant changes to production and trade must be made, including minimum price supports from the state, appropriate land use planning measures, the establishment of cooperatives, the protection of community land rights, and the implementation of agroforestry rubber production models.

Series: CIFOR Working Paper no. 207

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

Publication Year: 2016

Also published at Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)


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