The village of Ban Kang is located in a narrow valley in the northwest of the plain of Outaï, capital of Nyot Ou, northernmost district of Phongsaly Province. The village is composed of ninety families for a total of three hundred fifty persons. The villagers identify as Kho, a Sino-Tibetan sociolinguistic group that came from Yunnan in the 1900s after a long north-south migration from the Tibetan region. Several clans or lineages exist in each community. Kho people have a strong respect for human and natural resources, all under the spiritual dominance of protection spirits. “The mountain is their domain and the forest their means of production” (Chazée 1999).

As in many rural villages of Laos, rice is Ban Kang families’ main agricultural production. People practice slash-and-burn and shifting cultivation to grow rice on the mountain slopes. Half of the families also produce rice on paddy fields below the village settlement.

In the upland rice fields, smallholder farmers cultivate maize, vegetables, soybean and peanuts. Raising pigs and chickens is another important component of their farming system. Some families own cows and buffalos. Hunting and gathering food products such as bamboos shoots, tubers, weeds, spice or barks, are some others main activities of the families.

Before the 90s, foods non-produced in the village such as salt and clothes were exchanged in the lowland villages against opium or sometimes, livestock. Today, due to the influence of demographic growth, new agricultural and forestry policies, and new economic opportunities, rural activities are more and more directed towards a market economy, increasing the needs of incomes and therefore, cash crops. The question for farmers remains how to increase their incomes without disrupting their traditional production system. 

In Laos, wild cardamom grows in the rainforests of the mountainous northern areas. In the early 2000s, China started importing wild cardamom from Laos for its use in the traditional Chinese pharmacopeia, the national production of medicinal cardamom covering only half of their needs. However, gathering wild cardamom was hindered by two factors. First, due to the free access to wild cardamom, villagers tended to start harvesting prematurely to the detriment of ripeness and hence product quality (Aubertin 2003). Secondly, the local variety of wild cardamom is not as concentrated in essential oils as the cardamom grown in China, which is preferred by the industry (Ducourtieux and al 2006).

In Ban Kang, some families introduced the cardamom Guangdong after hearing about a Chinese trader who was providing seedlings to interested farmers. In 2005, eight families were producing cardamom while in 2007, the number had risen to twenty families; the extension of production to new families going through the selling or donation of seedlings by the first farmers who were introduced cardamom.

“I’ve started to plant cardamom because I saw some families planting it and generate income”. Farmer from Bang Kang, February 2018.

At this time, the price for a kilo of fresh cardamom was 5 yuan (0.75$). In 2008, CCL started to support Ban Kang’ families through an integrated rural development project aiming to improve their food and nutritional security. Based on the experience of a former CCL project in Phongsaly district, CCL has started to support the smallholder families of Ban Kang by providing cardamom seedlings to scale up the production at village level, most of the poorest families lacking capital to invest in the first seedlings. In two years, more than forty-five thousand seedlings were distributed to the poorest families. 

Phomkham and his family on their way of their cardamom plot, located three kilometers away from the village, Ban Kang, August 2018.

The applied farming technique aims at imitating the growth of wild cardamom (Zou 1999). Farmers slightly clear the forest area before planting to allow light to filter through the canopy. The seedlings are planted one plant per square meter. According to farmers, in order to obtain good yields, cardamom needs to be planted at last 1000 meters above the sea level and preferably on the bottom of hillsides, close to riverbanks. During the two first years, weeding is important. However, cardamom production is not very labour intensive. “Thinning and harvesting require less than 50 man-days per hectare and per year. The first fruit appears three years after planting, but the main harvest begins after the fifth year and continues increasing until the tenth year, then the plot wears out slowly over a ten-year period” (Ducourtieux and al 2006). 

Sengchoum's son waiting the end of the work, Ban Kang, August 2018.

Farmers from Ban Kang can produce 30 to 700 kg of dried fruit per hectare depending of the age of the plot and growing conditions – shade, moisture, fertility. In 2017, farmers sold one kilo of fresh cardamom for around 35 yuan (5.20$). The total production of the village was 12 metric tons with single household production fluctuating from 60 up to 500 kg. The village used to sell the entire production to a Chinese trader living few kilometres away and regularly buying non-timber forest production in the village such as cardamom, red mushrooms but also bamboo worms, a delicacy highly appreciated on the other side of the border. 

After growing cardamom, maize is the second income source for Ban Kang’ farmers. Planted on the bottom of hills, hybrid corn is used for feeding animals and exported to China for the same purpose. After sowing and thinning, farmers apply fertilizers, and then, herbicides for weeding. Today, the use of pesticides is common. The combination of Vietnamese hybrid seeds and agrochemicals came the norm for upland as well as lowland farmers, applying both pesticide and herbicide in off-season vegetables growing, sugarcane or jobs’ tear contract farming production. Sprayers are manual hand-compression sprayers with tanks carried on the back. No special body protection is used during spraying. However, thanks to information provided through trainings and discussions, more farmers in Ban Kang and villages around take precautions and use gloves as much as possible and keep children away from their use. However, women & children walking along the roads of the district’s valleys with sprayers on their backs are still a common sight. 

With the increase of cardamom production and incomes, farmers from Ban Kang have been reducing time spent on maize plots, thus limiting the use of chemicals. Some farmers report using glyphosate when they clear new plots but most of them, however, do not apply any herbicide or pesticide as the size and location of the plantation makes spraying impractical and inefficient. In parallel, by reducing corn production, the farmers’ need for new fallows also decreases, therefore, alleviating pressure on forest resources. Farmers clearly understand their importance. However, faced with recent changes such as village resettlement, administrative land division, valley population increase, and new market demands, natural resource management remains an acute challenge for upland farmers. In Ban Kang, CCL works with the Agro-Biodiversity Initiative (TABI) and the provincial department of Natural Resources and Environment to assess farmers’ land-use practices in order to integrate them into development plans and strategies at district level. Besides this, objective is also to provide to upland smallholder families forum for discussion in order to raise their concerns. 

Planted under forest canopy, cardamon enables the conservation and development of a wooded stratum, a guarantee for the subsistence of forest environmental conditions, Ban Kang 2018.

Planted under the forest canopy, cardamom presents many advantages compared to other cash cropsystems, especially its low environmental impact and its resilience to climate hazards. The farmer’s practice of scattering their production area onto several small plots mitigates the potential impact of climate hazards, pests and soil deterioration. The system’s sustainability reaches its limits when the extension of production areas jeopardizes the forest’s ecosystem balance. Cardamom is planted on the bottom of bush fallows and forested hills. If the number and/or surface of plots increase rapidly, farmers are likely to compete to find new suitable areas and may start to plant in watershed conservation forests decreasing the density of their canopies. Therefore, a participatory community approach to forest-use zoning becomes necessary to ensure sustainable management of space and resources. Setting up management rules also allows farmers to collectively define the harvest period in order to prevent early cardamom fruits collection, which is common practice among farmers seeking to obtain cash quickly. 

Adolescent from Ban Kang posing on his motorbike. These one have definitely change life of people, reducing workload and facilitate access to markets, Ban Kang, August 2018.

Today, each Ban Kang’ household earns one thousand dollars per year in average thanks to cardamom production, improving their safety net in case of crops failure or health issues. However, when asked about their potential strategy in case of cardamom price drop, farmers are often puzzled, highlighting the difficulty to plan for the future. So far, however, farmers have reason to be optimistic. Production in China isn’t keeping up with the steadily increasing demand.

Cardamom production in Ban Kang highlights some key lessons for rural development stakeholders to consider in order to allow the development of a sustainable and resilient cardamom value chain and for maximizing positive externalities and reducing risks for the communities and the environment. In a nutshell, it is recommended to i/accompany the selection of best plots, ii/promote techniques which increase production and resilience of plants, iii/incorporate cardamom production within the framework of Land Use and Natural Resources Management Plans, in order to protect biodiversity and sustainable valorisation of others non-timber forest products value chains, iv/support the structuration of farmers and processors groups only when relevant, v/accompany the reinvestment of capital from cardamom to new economic activities to multiply income diversification, and finally, vi/strengthen capacities, the role and involvement of farmers at all stages of the value chain. 

Woman from Outai, district capital from Nyot Ou, removing small stalks and moldy cardamom' fruits from bags bought to villagers before to be exported and sold again in China, Nyot Ou, September 2018.