Floating Rice – Lessons from the Mekong

Van Kien Nguyen
6 October 2016

By Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellows

Pictures can speak a thousand words. However, the image of six Luc Hoffmann Institute (LHI) Fellows dressed in pink and yellow ponchos floating around in the Mekong Delta might need yet further explanation.

LHI Fellows travel by river to visit the floating rice study site © Mel Ryan

We were invited to Vietnam to share our experiences of interdisciplinary research with one another and participate in the LHI Fellows group training related to managing complex collaborative projects. One of the key goals for the week was for us, as Fellows, to understand how we could develop our capacity to lead research projects geared towards achieving a tangible ‘impact’. What are the skills required to bring our science to bear on real world environmental problems? Fortunately, we were in an excellent place to learn about this: the An Giang University, where LHI Fellow Dr. Kien Van Nguyen has been running a community-based research project at the intersection of food, energy and water.

Reversing the decline in floating rice production

Kien’s works in The Mekong Delta, a region that provides livelihoods for over 60 million people. His particular focus is on the traditional cropping systems associated with floating rice. Once widely grown in Asia and the Mekong Delta region, cultivation of floating rice has declined since the 1970s to be replaced with higher yielding varieties that produce two or three harvests per year. This has, however, come at a considerable cost. The new varieties need closely managed water levels that require the construction of high dykes. This infrastructure alters the functioning of the floodplain during monsoon; increasing flood damage (we can attest to the intense rainfall that the area receives!), preventing the spread of water and the much-needed nutrient-rich sediments from re-fertilising fields and stopping freshwater fish, key nutrition for rural people, from reaching farms in the delta. In contrast, cultivating floating rice allows a more natural movement of the delta’s waters and its associated biodiversity, resulting in lower environmental impact, allowing alternative food security considerations and helping maintain the region’s cultural heritage.

Kien and his colleagues hope to stop and reverse the decline in floating rice production, but to achieve this they had to demonstrate the environmental and economic benefits that this change would bring to the community. What were the key capacities that Kien’s research group had to apply in order to convince the community to change to floating rice? For the project to be a success, the team ultimately need to influence the rice farmers. They have spent the last three years working closely with local farmers to test and demonstrate the benefits of floating rice cultivation and to make sure that the benefits find their way through to this community – vital if the change is to be sustained and replicated across the delta.

As well as the benefits that are realised through maintaining a more natural flood cycle, the greater availability of nursing habitat amongst the floating rice results in increased fish abundance and floating rice also produces large quantities of mulch that can be used during the dry season to maintain soil moisture, allowing farmers to grow upland vegetable crops such as leeks, cassava, pumpkin, chilli, cucumber, water melon, and corn. Moreover, the cost of floating rice production are significantly lower than those for higher yielding varieties – an important consideration given the risk of harvest failures in the region associated with changes in climate. However, it is not just the farmers that need to be engaged. The project also requires buy-in from other actors too. For example, by highlighting the low fertiliser requirements and zero pesticide use of floating rice to consumers in order to open up market opportunities for a higher quality and healthier grain. Or by enlisting the support of NGOs and government agencies to support the development of this market and broaden participation.

Lessons learned in impact-oriented research

After a week of project management training, discussing how to make the most of our research and learning from a real strong cross-sectoral collaborative work, we identified four key capacities we believe essential in order to bring science into real environmental problems:

  • Theory of Change: Put simply, this means being explicit about what change you would like to bring about and the intended pathway by which that might happen. This exercise enables us to think clearly about how and why we are communicating with internal and external collaborators and helps clarify the links between our research and conservation action. It can also act as a way to test the assumptions that underpin how and why research is undertaken, reflecting on ‘does our narrative about how the world works, actually match up with the reality of the change we hope to influence?’
  • Actor mapping: Understand the actors influencing the problem in question. This is the first step to start identifying who your project needs to engage with, who is benefiting from your science and what are the potential actor’s interactions and expectations you need to take into account. Researchers should not underestimate the benefits of doing this – nor the cost; understanding the reasons for and against any particular action from multiple stakeholder perspectives will require significant investment of time and energy and these should be factored into a project plan.
  • Communication: Being able to communicate effectively is vital, both within our collaborative research teams and more widely to those that we want to influence externally. Crucially (and essential to any process that aims to be truly collaborative), this means that as well as being able to effectively communicate our work, we also need to be able to listen to other perspectives in order to understand the historical political, social and cultural context within which our work sits.
  • Adaptability: Research plans can be constrictive – the way that many research projects are set up, with rigid deliverables promised to funding agencies, detailed schedules and workplans to help busy project partners work together, and fixed ideas of the kinds of results (and likely papers) that might arise from the work. However, in all likelihood, new information, situations or collaborative opportunities will arise that mean alternative bits of work might be better able to achieve change in real-world contexts. Managing our research projects in a way that changes can be happen in a smooth, meaningful and effective way, allowing for the purpose and vision of the research to be met while still meeting the accountability standards required for outputs and the demands of science production.

These principles have been successfully applied to bring about positive change in the Mekong Delta. However, as a group of early career researchers working on topics related to cities, supply chains, marine protected areas, national park management and the food-energy-water nexus, it was also clear that they could be applied to all of our impact-oriented research.

So, while we learned that it is in fact essential to pack and be ready to deploy a poncho if you wish to explore the landscape of the Mekong Delta, importantly we also learned that even though our expertise and research questions are different, the LHI Fellows could see clear commonality in our quest to have an impact for nature and people.

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