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Agroforestry sites in Vietnam provide lessons for farmland in Bhutan and Nepal

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Terraced hillside in the Son La agroforestry landscape in the Northwest region of Vietnam. Photo by Chuki Wangmo
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Terraced hillside in the Son La agroforestry landscape in the Northwest region of Vietnam. Photo by Chuki Wangmo

Government officers from the mountainous countries of Bhutan and Nepal have visited highly successful agroforestry sites in Northwest Vietnam that are helping to restore degraded sloping land and improve farmers’ incomes.

The steep upland farming areas of Bhutan, Nepal and Vietnam share similar challenges in establishing sustainable agricultural practices that improve livelihoods and the environment.

To share knowledge and experience from working with farmers in the steeply sloping landscapes of Northwest Vietnam, government officers from Bhutan and Nepal traveled to Son La and Dien Bien provinces to explore an array of well-developed agroforestry systems, demonstration sites, plantations and nurseries. The visitors learned how the various systems have contributed to increased food security, income stability, water availability and reduced soil erosion.

As well as designing and establishing the systems with farmers and government extension officers, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), has been working with farmers to monitor changes in soil erosion following the adoption of agroforestry practices.

Chuki Wangmo and Kinley Wangmo from the Institute of Conservation and Environmental Research of the Bhutan Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, and Ram Babu Paudyal and Bishnu Kumari Adhikari from Nepal’s Ministry of Forestry and Soil Conservation, noted that cultivating on a steep gradient is something that communities across all three countries were familiar with. However, the associated issues of soil and wind erosion were not easy to mitigate.

An agroforestry system is seen on a hillside in Son La province, Vietnam. Photo by Chuki Wangmo

The visitors were first shown a five-year-old complex agroforestry system in Son La, where the recorded decline in soil erosion since the introduction of agroforestry was of particular relevance to the officers from Bhutan, who work with farmers in mountainous terrain.

“Hard evidence is very important,” noted Chuki Wangmo. “If people at both the national and local levels can see how agroforestry can be of benefit to crop production, especially by addressing soil and wind erosion issues which many farmers suffer from, it would encourage wider adoption of agroforestry in our country.”

Farmers in both Vietnam and Bhutan are already significantly affected by the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. In Bhutan, changes to precipitation are exacerbating the rate of soil erosion, which is speeding a decline in soil fertility, compounded by the steep terrain. The government often has to compensate farmers affected by crop losses and damage caused by landslides and flooding.

About 70 percent of Bhutanese farmers rely on agriculture, forestry and livestock for subsistence livelihoods yet only 8 percent of Bhutan’s total land area is cultivable. The establishment of agroforestry would enable farmers cultivating small areas of land to improve the efficiency and diversity of crop production in already fragile mountainous areas, whilst meeting the socioeconomic needs of the community.

“The successful agroforestry demonstration sites we visited revealed how agroforestry systems can increase land-use efficiency for smallholders by increasing the productivity per area unit,” noted Ram Babu Paudyal.

Nepal could reap the benefits of such simple yet effective agroforestry systems to produce a diverse range of products on small areas of land.

In Son La province, the Nepali visitors heard how farmers involved in a 50-hectare demonstration agroforestry landscape had migrated from a neighboring area affected by the construction of a hydropower dam.

The role of agroforestry in improving livelihoods is particularly relevant to Nepal because it is experiencing increased out-migration from rural areas. This was a key motive of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in funding a pilot study dubbed Enhancing Rural Livelihoods in Abandoned/Underutilized Agricultural Land through Agroforestry.

“We hope that agroforestry will encourage the return of urban migrants to farms,” said Ram Babu Paudyal. “If agroforestry can be demonstrated as a land-use system that can provide sustainable sources of income and sustainable land cultivation, it could help address poverty and many national environmental concerns.”

ICRAF Vietnam recognizes the importance of establishing long-term relationships and collaboration with district and community organizations to enable the sustainable implementation of agroforestry. Agricultural and forestry extensionists or rural advisors are a key component of such relations. The visitors had the chance to speak with extensionists at the field sites to better understand their role as communicators of technical advice and guidance to, and between, farmers.

“Extensionists are clearly very valuable when it comes to building cohesion between the agricultural and forestry sectors,” commented Kinley Wangmo. “We learned that there were many different stakeholders, including experts, involved in the process of enabling agroforestry on the ground. Our visit to the field sites showed that agroforestry systems differ depending on the type of landscape and that the needs of farmers in those landscapes must always be prioritized.”

By Anoushka Carter, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World.

This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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  • Approaches and tools for assessing mountain forest ecosystem services

Approaches and tools for assessing mountain forest ecosystem services

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Mountain forest ecosystems provide a wide range of direct and indirect contributions to the people who live in the mountains and surrounding areas. Occupying steep slopes at high elevation, these ecosystems provide services such as stabilizing slopes, regulating hydrological cycles, maintaining rich biodiversity and supporting the livelihoods of those who are diverse in culture but vulnerable to poverty and food security. This paper (i) reviews several tools for assessing the sociocultural, economic and ecological values of mountain forest ecosystem services, (ii) demonstrates case studies of tool applications from several countries namely, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Iran and Nepal, and (iii) discusses assessment challenges that should be considered in the application of these tools.

In Bhutan, an application of benefit transfer showed that the average total value of forest ecosystem services was over USD 14.5 billion per year. In India, an application of stakeholder and household analyses indicated that a total of 29 different ecosystem services are available and sustain livelihoods of local communities near the Maguri Mottapung wetland. In Indonesia, an application of Q methodology identified anticipated benefits and concerns of forest watershed stakeholders related to certification applications for a payment for ecosystem services. In Iran, an application of the Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs Tool showed that the regulation of ecosystem services has been declining in Hyrcanian forests despite the forests’ critical roles in the region. In Nepal, an application of a spatial analytical approach and participatory assessment techniques identified key mountain ecosystem services for community forests at the Charnawolti sub-watershed of Dolakha, and demonstrated forest restoration on degraded lands over the last two decades. Several challenges exist for the assessment of mountain forest ecosystem services and these must be reflected in assessment design. These challenges include the complexity of defining and classifying ecosystem services; limited availability of data on ecosystem services; uncertainties associated with climate change; complex relationships among services including trade-offs and synergies; and limitation of assessments to build successful payments for ecosystem services.

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  • Defining critical issues in forest ecosystem services in Bhutan

Defining critical issues in forest ecosystem services in Bhutan

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A large patch of lemongrass grows in the Chisapani Community Forest in Nepal. Photo by Chandra Shekhar Karki/CIFOR
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A large patch of lemongrass grows in the Chisapani Community Forest in Nepal. Photo by Chandra Shekhar Karki/CIFOR

In Bhutan, a small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, it is often the middle road that is chosen. A new paper, part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), looks at the connections between forests and Gross National Happiness in the country.

There’s the middle path of the country’s religion and its emphasis on spiritual balance, symbolized in the prayer flags and pagoda tops that peek through the mountain trees. Then there’s the Lateral Road, the main highway that runs east to west through the middle of the country, where Robin Sears, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) consultant and an Assistant Professor at Hampshire College, rides her bike when she visits the area to research forests, villages and governance.

A middle-road approach also applies to the country’s self-designed development index: Gross National Happiness (GNH), conceptualized by the fourth king in the 1970s as a more holistic replacement for the standard measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Enshrined in Bhutan’s Constitution in 2008, the GNH index now serves as a yardstick for every piece of legislature introduced in the country, ensuring a balance of its four pillars of environmental conservation, cultural preservation, equitable socioeconomic development and good governance.

“It’s so wonderful that GNH looks at a balance of socioeconomic and environmental issues,” says Sears. “It’s structured into policymaking processes. Every proposal for development and budgets and policy has to go through the GNH Commission to see if it meets balanced requirements. It mixes people from different sectors together.”

Often, the pillars of GNH work like dominoes falling into one another. A community’s good relationship with the environment leads to the preservation of their culture, which moves governance to help support the environment through proper forest ecosystem practices. Environment-based socioeconomic development then occurs, and so on.

A man expresses his emotions in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Moses Ceaser/CIFOR

Until now, however, very little research has been done on these chain reactions, and specifically the relationship between GNH and forestry. Along with a team of five other scientists, Sears recently published a paper looking at existing literature on GNH and assessing how forests tie into this framework.

“I’d been going to Bhutan since 2009, and I’d always heard from my colleagues that we didn’t have evidence for this or that,” says Sears. “So I was sitting with some of them talking over dinner one night, and we realized that we first needed to define what we needed evidence for, what were the most critical issues in forest ecosystem services in Bhutan. And so we said, ‘Let’s do this thing!’”

Read more: Forest ecosystem services and the pillars of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness


The researchers set out to define a baseline for how forests are linked to the country’s developmental direction.

“Everything we do has to feed into government plans,” says Sears. “You can’t come here to study butterflies because you love butterflies. We have to come and do stuff that Bhutan needs.”

The nation’s needs are outlined in the government’s Five Year Plans, which set targets and budgets across all major sectors for the coming period. The current plan, covering the period 2013-2018, includes four priority areas related to forest ecosystem services, the most important of which is enhancing water security through a national water resource management plan.

“The big thing that the government has been pushing in the last four to eight years is watershed management. How do we reduce soil erosion? How do we keep rivers clean?”

But there is little research as yet on water issues, such as quality, quantity, watersheds and the effects of hydropower infrastructure. For instance, Bhutan’s dams face issues of flooding and adverse effects on biodiversity, like fish, algae, flora and rare fauna like white-bellied herons.

Furthermore, as water supplies change with shifting precipitation patterns and the melting of Himalayan glaciers due to climate change, studies on water regulation and payment mechanisms for water protection are set to become increasingly important. The new study lays out what knowledge exists on these topics so that the gaps can be filled in.

Another priority for this five-year period is strengthening livelihood opportunities for forest-based communities – in other words, increasing the incomes of those who depend on forests. If this is successful, forestry authorities can use the success stories to push harder for the maintenance of forests in the face of competing interests for development of land into ranches or cash-crop plantations.

“As well as boosting the productivity of forests, we want to create and promote a market for forest products. If we can show that standing forests are valuable, that’s the way to keep them around,” says Sears.

Read more: How are China, Nepal and Ethiopia restoring forest landscapes?


For centuries, Bhutanese communities have closed access to mountains on a rotating basis, believing that this keeps them in the good favor of local deities. This practice, known as Reedum, coincides with the warmer seasons, which are most conducive for forest growth, in turn promoting forest preservation and preventing natural disaster. Another tradition, Tsadum, restricts grazing on certain landscapes in a similar way.

“Such practices are important to enhance a wide range of regulating, cultural and supporting services, although the provisioning services may be limited due to the restricted use,” says CIFOR scientist Himlal Baral, a coauthor of the paper.

Whether a lack of landslides and flash floods are considered a result of the gods’ good graces or of scientifically sound practices, the fact is that Reedum, Tsadum and other sacred customs have long been effective forest and landscape management techniques. However, they have no formal place in law, and therefore are becoming endangered.

Sonam Phuntsho, another coauthor of the paper, and a senior researcher at the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research, says there is a lack of data on how much forest in Bhutan is managed under customary law, or how many sacred groves still exist. Social changes are also impacting their survival, he adds.

“There are ongoing threats to sacred groves and associated ecosystem services due to changing social dynamics and economic development,” he says.

Sears agrees. “In the last 20 years, policy has shifted, and customary norms and rules have been banned or ignored and replaced by scientific forestry,” she says. “Cultural preservation, which includes spiritual rules and beliefs, is going to be forgotten if people cannot practice.”

Sears and her fellow scientists hope their research leads to the gathering of evidence on the effectiveness of traditional land management practices to share with the government, ultimately seeing these social norms incorporated into policies.

One reason awareness of such practices has disappeared from government offices is the increased urbanization of Bhutanese communities, leading to an erosion of culture and, ultimately, landscapes.

People harvest rice in Dintor, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

For the past two decades, tree cover has increased by 0.2 percent annually, but not always for good reason. Sears explains that migration is dually caused by factors of push and pull. First, threats posed by wildlife – elephants eating crops and knocking down houses, bears eating livestock, wild boars digging up fields – result in a huge loss of income that pushes people off of their farms. At the same time, the allures of better education and easier work pulls people into the capital Thimphu or other developed areas.

As villages empty of their workers, farmland is increasingly unattended, allowing forests to close in on homesteads, bringing more threats of wildlife and forest fires.

“Food security is a big problem for the government,” says Sears. “Who will grow food? There’s a big push in the next five-year plan to get people back to the farm by modernizing farming, introducing new technologies and greenhouses. The government also wants to go all-organic by 2020 and make rural life more viable with increased phone coverage, better schools and roads.”


The domino effect theorized by Sears and colleagues – with cultural preservation leading to good governance, which drives environmental conservation, and in turn leads to equitable socioeconomic development – was strongly supported by their review of the literature. This backs the idea that forests and their ecosystem services contribute to the four pillars of GNH, supporting Bhutan’s happiness-based development goals.

Although finding empirical evidence of the direct links between forests and GNH was challenging, “the strongest connection in this regard was found in relation to the pillars of good governance and socioeconomic development, particularly through community-based forestry schemes,” says Baral.

As communities act to restore mountainous forest landscapes, boosting essential ecosystem services and protecting from risks of disaster, more research is needed to determine the effects on national development, as defined by the happiness index.

Judging from the research results so far, it could well be a middle path worth taking.

By Gabrielle Lipton, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

For more information on this topic, please contact Himlal Baral at or Robin Sears at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

This research was supported by the Republic of Austria.

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Forest ecosystem services and the pillars of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness

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In the eastern Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, culture, society, economy and environment are linked in the development framework of Gross National Happiness (GNH). In this literature review, we highlight the relationships between forests and Bhutan’s development framework and current priorities, identifying plausible causal pathways. Due to the mountainous nature of this country, our particular interest is in the impacts of upstream forest activity on downstream stakeholders.

Our hypothetical framework identifies specific causal pathways between forests and the four pillars of GNH (environmental conservation, cultural preservation, equitable socioeconomic development and good governance), and evidence was sought in the published literature to test the hypothesis. While conceptual support for many linkages between forests and each of the pillars was found in the literature, evidential support specifically for Bhutan is limited. The strongest evidence is found for the role of forests in socioeconomic development and good governance, particularly through the community forestry program.

To develop incentive programs for forest conservation and restoration, such as payment for ecosystem services and pay-for-performance donor funding, the evidence base needs to be expanded for causal pathways between upstream forest condition and downstream security, particularly for services such as water regulation. The evidence should inform public policy and forest management strategies and practices.

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