Food and Fertilizer Technology Center - publications

Nov. 30, -0001

Sustainable Agriculture in Upland Areas of Asia


Slopeland farmers tend to have lower yields and lower incomes than lowland farmers. However, it is lowland agriculture which has been the focus of most research and development efforts. This is now changing. The document Agenda 21 of the United Nations (UNCED) emphasized that in the 21st century, the emphasis of agricultural development will have to shift from developing green revolution technologies for lowland areas, to finding ways of improving the productivity of agriculture in marginal areas. Global programs against rural poverty will not succeed unless more attention is paid to people in marginal (less productive) environments where so many of the world's poor live. Slopelands are a good example of marginal agricultural lands, where problems of population pressure, poverty and environmental degradation are widespread.

Slopeland farmers everywhere face similar problems. Sloping gradients make fields vulnerable to soil and water loss, leading to erosion and moisture deficiency. For the same reason, most slopelands have relatively shallow and infertile soils. The steeper the gradient, the more severe such production problems tend to be. In many slopeland areas, productivity is falling and there is a decline in yields.

Where slopeland farmers are producing mainly for their own subsistence, this has caused food shortages. Farms can no longer produce enough to maintain the family throughout the year. Instead, food reserves are exhausted in seven or eight months. The shortfall has to be met by more intensive farming, causing further degradation of the environment, or by migration to find work in the lowlands. In many slopeland areas, most able-bodied men have left to find work in towns, leaving behind the women, children and old people as the only agricultural work force.

Where slopeland agriculture has become part of a cash economy, farmers have to overcome the high cost and difficulty of transporting crops to market. As a general rule, farm incomes tend to decline as the distance of farms from populations centers increases. Slopeland farmers are often handicapped by poor transport facilities and high marketing costs. This is a major reason why migration of slopeland farmers to cities is also common in industrialized countries. In countries like Japan, where there are good employment opportunities in industry, many slopeland farmers are abandoning their farms to take up better-paid jobs in cities and towns.

Slopelands in other parts of Asia are suffering from an influx of landless poor farmers, forced out of more fertile lowland regions by land scarcity and population pressure. Intensive farming methods suitable for lowlands can be disastrous when used on slopelands, promoting soil erosion and reducing land productivity.

Technology for Slopelands

Traditional Technology

Traditional slopeland systems of agriculture in Asia were sustainable, as is shown by their long survival over the centuries. However, yields were much lower than those of modern agriculture, and are not enough to feed today's much larger populations.

Throughout Asia, rice terraces were built wherever soil was permeable, the rainfall sufficient, and the social environment favorable. A more common system of slopeland farming was slash and burn agriculture. In slash and burn, forest is cleared and burnt. Crops are grown for two or three years on the cleared ground, fertilized by the ash and by the accumulated humus. Although slash and burn farming is often blamed for forest destruction, the traditional system is a stable one which allows plenty of time for forest to regenerate. Only small areas are cleared for cultivation at any one time, while the forest has time to regenerate in a long fallow period which may last 30 years or more.

Under modern population pressure, slash and burn has become much more intensive, and much less sustainable. Cultivated areas are larger, and fallow periods are shorter. The result is permanent deforestation, and widespread soil erosion. The situation today in slash and burn areas of upland Bangladesh is typical of much of Asia's slopelands. The fallow period has fallen to only three or four years, which is not enough to restore soil fertility. Crop yields are falling, leading to even greater pressure on land and more environmental destruction.

Improved Technology

The solution has been to introduce a new type of farming technology, in which slopes are shaped into more stable contour terraces and bench terraces. Vegetation, including cover crops and green mulches, is used to hold soil and stabilize slopes. Whereas the traditional system produced annual food crops, the adapted system is based on a mixture of perennial and annual crops. Livestock can also be part of a successful slopeland farming system.

Perennial crops have a permanent root system to retain soil, and planting along contours can gradually reform slopes into terraces. The canopy of perennial tree crops also helps protect soil from rainfall impact. Nearly all sustainable slopeland systems are either based on perennial crops, or incorporate perennial crops into the cropping system.

Developing New Crops

Slopeland production and marketing costs are always likely to be higher than those in the lowlands. This makes it difficult for slopeland farmers to compete with lowland ones for markets, if they are growing the same type of crop. An important concept for slopelands is production that takes advantage of a specific environmental or marketing niche.

One successful program based on a perennial crop is the production of large cardamom (
Amomum subulatum
) in Sikkim, in the Himalayas. This nitrogen-fixing tree is a native of Sikkim, and prefers a cool, moist upland environment. The crop requires no external inputs. A high-value, low-volume crop which can be stored for some time, it is comparatively easy for slopeland farmers to market.

Vegetables can be a profitable cash crop in slopeland areas, especially in tropical countries. Temperate vegetables grow well in higher altitudes, where temperatures are cooler. There have been a number of programs to promote small-scale vegetable production in slopeland areas of Asia. However, although these have raised farm incomes, they have also caused environmental problems. Vegetables are often given heavy applications of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, and these can contaminate water sources. Also, vegetable fields are kept clean weeded, and on sloping ground this can mean rapid soil erosion.

Betelnut is another niche crop which is profitable, but can damage the environment. Betel nut is widely grown on slopelands in Taiwan ROC. While it gives very high returns, it also causes high rates of soil loss unless conservation measures such as cover crops or mulches are used.

Both vegetable and betelnut production illustrate the difficulty of balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of slopeland farmers for increased production and a reasonable cash income.

Slopeland Development Programs

The Need for Outside Support

Most successful programs to help slopeland farmers rely on outside support from governments or NGOs, specially during the initial years of a project. Without outside support, farmers cannot generate enough funds for capital investment.

Furthermore, conservation programs need to be carried out on a large scale if they are to be effective. It is useless for an individual slopeland farmer to carry out conservation measures, unless farmers on adjacent land, particularly those on higher slopes above his farm, are doing the same thing. Furthermore, problems of marketing, which are basically problems of organization and infrastructure, are not the kind of difficulty that low-income farmers can solve individually.

Legislative Measures

Although most Asian countries have legislation which protects the environment of slopeland areas and limits their exploitation, in practice such legislation is often not enforced. The reason is partly pressure from vested interests, but is mainly because the people infringing the law have been forced to do so by poverty and other economic pressures beyond their control. Legislation seems to be more effective when it emphasizes incentives, rather than a punitive approach. For example, farmers can be rewarded for adopting conservation measures by being granted title to their land. Similarly, farmers and farm communities should be among the beneficiaries of maintaining the bio-diversity of slopeland areas.


Sustainable agriculture acknowledges that resources are limited, and that there is a need to maximize the profits of future generations as well as the present one. However, sustainable slopeland agriculture is not just a matter of conserving the environment. The economic need of human beings for a secure livelihood must be taken into account, and balanced with the need to protect the environment.

One important question about conservation technology for slopeland agriculture is the reason why conservation measures have not been more widely adopted by farmers. Most of the technology used in successful slopeland programs today has been available for at least ten years, and some of it was used in successful programs of the 1960s. This implies that the solutions to the problems of sustainable slopeland agriculture are not likely to be technical ones, but are more likely to be social and economic. More needs to be known about farmers' response to conservation programs, both successful ones and those where farmers did not adopt conservation technology, or abandoned it after the active period of the conservation program.

FFTC International Seminar

Sustainable Agriculture in Upland Areas

Tokyo and Takamatsu, Japan

October 27-November 2 1997

No. participating countries:
12 (Bangladesh, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of China, Sri Lanka, USA, Vietnam)

No. papers:

No. participants:
50 (plus observers)

Asian Productivity Organization (APO);

Association for International Cooperation of Agriculture and Forestry (AICAF), Japan;

Shikoku National Agricultural Experiment Station, Japan

List of Papers

Country Papers: Present status and problems in slopeland agriculture in Asian and Pacific Countries

1. Bangladesh - M.A. Razzaque2. Taiwan ROC - Sen-Fuh Chang3. India - Ajoy Kumar Gogoi4. Indonesia - Purnomo Djadi5. Iran - M.H. Rouhani6. Japan - Hiroshi Sugaya7. Korea - Uhn-Soon Gim8. Malaysia - Tew Nam Foo9. Mongolia - L. Batchimeg10. Nepal - S.N. Vaidya11. Pakistan - Zakir Hussain12. Philippines - F.T. Bawang13. Sri Lanka - P.B. Ekanayake14. Viet Nam - Do Van Hoa

Keynote paper

15. The current situation and future tasks in slopeland agriculture in Japan and Asia

- Shoichiro Nakagawa

16. Sustainable technologies for use and conservation of steeplands

- Anthony S.R. Juo and Thomas L. Thurow

17. Sustainable farming in the upland areas of semi-arid and humid Asia: Land resources management in slopeland agriculture

- Tej Partap

18. Effective conservation practices for the cultivation of sloping lands

- Chia-Chun Wu

19. Mechanization of hillside orchards in Korea

- Kyeong Uk Kim

20. Labor saving production systems of high-quality citrus fruits on steep sloping land

- Toyozi Takatsuji

Index of Images

Figure 1 High-Value Crops for Slopeland Farmers. I. Ginseng, Korea

Figure 1 High-Value Crops for Slopeland Farmers. I. Ginseng, Korea

Figure 2 High-Value Crops for Slopeland Farmers. II. Large Cardamom, Nepal

Figure 2 High-Value Crops for Slopeland Farmers. II. Large Cardamom, Nepal

Figure 3 High-Value Crops for Slopeland Farmers. III. Satsuma Mandarins, Shikoku, Japan

Figure 3 High-Value Crops for Slopeland Farmers. III. Satsuma Mandarins, Shikoku, Japan

Figure 4 Small Machine Developed for Slopeland Farms in Asia

Figure 4 Small Machine Developed for Slopeland Farms in Asia

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