ASIA-PACIFIC: Farming Rice and Fish together to reduce poverty

ASIA-PACIFIC: Farming Rice and Fish together to reduce poverty

IPS World Desk


Rice is a major food commodity and staple food for many, and adding fish to flooded rice paddies has been a farming tradition practiced in a number of Asian countries for many centuries—even for more than 1000 years in some Chinese areas, the United Nations reports.


With the adoption of innovative technologies and a wider choice of fish species and rice varieties, the rice-fish farming system can play a significant role in poverty reduction and improving food and nutrition security, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).


A prime example of this successful practice is found in Honghe County of China’s Yunnan Province.


Rural and Indigenous Communities
On this, Matthias Halwart, Senior Officer and Outreach Coordinator of FAO’s Sustainable Agriculture Programme, says that agriculture, integrated with fish farming, supports rural and indigenous communities and can significantly help countries address the challenges of poverty alleviation as well as improved food and nutrition security.


“The rice-fish farming system we witnessed here, also recognised as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS), represents the wisdom of millennia of farming, nowadays strengthened by innovative aspects such as public private partnership.”


Halwart also pointed out that there is scope for a wider adoption of rice-fish systems in the region and beyond, while noting that the UN specialised agency was partnering with China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and through its FAO-China South-South Cooperation Programme to support countries on their path towards more sustainable agricultural systems.


A group of agro-aquaculture experts from seven Asian countries attending a recent FAO regional workshop on innovative integrated agro-aquaculture in Asia, recently visited the rice-fish farming systems in the terraced rice field in Honghe, where fish is integrated in rice paddy to achieve higher yield and better quality of rice topping with fish as an additional commodity.


“As a result, the value of the combined output has tripled,” the Bangkok-based FAO regional office for Asia and the Pacific informs.


Honghe is a mountainous area where more than 85 per cent of inhabitants are the indigenous ethnic group called “Hani” and who are traditional rice growers in the terraced rice paddy. The county has been identified in the country’s list of poverty reduction areas.


The Freshwater Fisheries Research Center (FFRC) in Wuxi of China, which is an FAO Reference Centre for Fisheries and Aquaculture, has provided technical support and backstopping to Honghe on the rice-fish farming system and set up an experimental station.


The experts from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Philippines, and Viet Nam said they were convinced that the experience of Honghe could be replicated in their respective countries to help the local farmers in their fight against hunger and to improve their livelihoods and reduce poverty.


The group further recommended that FAO set up a rice-fish farming demonstration village in Honghe to showcase their experiences and good practices.


Xu Pao, a professor and Director of FFRC, stressed the importance of cooperation among the countries concerned to share experiences and expressed a willingness to continue providing technical support and assistance for the technology transfer on rice-fish farming, not only to farmers in Honghe but nationally and internationally.


The experts participating in the workshop and site visit noted the importance of using scarce resources efficiently and manage to grow nutritious and safe food with a minimum of potentially harmful chemicals, says FAO.


They also concluded that promoting an enabling policy environment and providing necessary technical expertise are critical elements in developing their business plans.


The group agreed to continue collaborating and to develop a regional strategy for upscaling the rice-fish farming systems through a regional technical cooperation programme, supported by various funding sources, through south-south cooperation.


At present, 26 sites in 6 countries (1 site in Bangladesh, 11 sites in China, 3 sites in India, 8 sites in Japan, 1 site in Philippines and 2 sites in Republic of Korea) are designated as GIAHS in Asia and the Pacific region.


More than 1000 Ago in China
In some Chinese areas, farmers combine rice farming with aquaculture, quite literally growing fish in their flooded paddy fields. The rice paddies offer protection and organic food for the fish, while the fish soften the soil and provide nutrients and oxygen for the rice crop, the UN specialised body tells in its report: Growing rice and fish – together a Chinese tradition for 1000 years.


The method proved to have several additional advantages. For instance, the fish also eat insects and weeds maintaining a perfect ecological balance that improves biodiversity while limiting problems caused by insects and plant diseases.


“This ancient farming system has been designated a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) by FAO, making Qingtian County famous for something other than emigration, and now well-known for an agricultural system that has stood the test of time and remains in harmony with nature.”


New is not always better. “It turns out that our traditional fish-rice farming method is now seen by the world as a 1 000-year-old treasure,” says Wu, a participant and beneficiary of growing rice and fish–together, according to the report.


“People were so amazed by the beauty and wonder of the rice-fish culture system that our village has become the focus of international attention.” As Wu’s village became famous, many city dwellers and some foreigners began arriving for holidays.


Wu, like many other villagers, recognised that this proud and ancient agricultural tradition was about to improve their 21st century livelihoods. “I seized the opportunity to open the first locally owned and operated restaurant in Longxian village,” says Wu. “I began selling fish produced from the rice fields.”


In order to take full advantage of the new GIAHS designation, government experts helped the villagers plan for conservation and expansion. “We formed a special team and we became much more conscious of the importance of native/local plant resources conservation and environmental protection,” says Wu.


“Today, many species of birds, like egrets, which had disappeared for years, are once again seen flying around this area.”


Today the entire village is benefiting from the conservation of its agricultural heritage. The fish produced in the paddy fields of Longxian village that once sold for 20 Yuan (2.5 dollars) per kilogramme, today sell for 120 Yuan (19 dollars).


“There are now five restaurants run by farmers in the village,” adds Wu, “and there is no shortage of customers.” Last year the village received more than 100 000 tourists.


The persistence of traditional farming through the centuries is living proof of a successful indigenous agricultural strategy and a tribute to the “creativity” of small farmers throughout the developing world, according to the UN specialised agency.