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close this bookResource Management for Upland Areas in Southeast Asia - An Information Kit (IIRR, 1995, 207 p.)
close this folder1. Overview of upland issues and approaches
View the documentUpland development issues and approaches
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View the documentLevels of decision-making

Upland development issues and approaches

The uplands of Southeast Asia contrast with the region's lowlands. They are hilly or mountainous areas, with steep slopes and generally poor soils. While dryland agriculture is most common, the uplands also contain areas of wetland rice where the topography permits irrigation.

The uplands form a significant portion of most countries in the region: they account for 80% of Indonesia's, 70% of China's and 72% of Vietnam's total land area. Because of their varied topography and poor soils, the uplands sustain lower populations than the more fertile lowlands: only 26% of Vietnam's population lives in upland areas.

How can integrated, participatory approaches which balance economic and ecological considerations be translated into agricultural development and natural resource management models that can be understood by extension workers and adopted by farmers?

Links between uplands and lowlands

· Population movements.
· Upper watersheds regulate water flow further downstream.
· Erosion causes siltation and flooding downstream.
· Lowlands provide markets for uplands.
· Government policies determined in lowlands, often by lowland inhabitants.

Ratio of agricultural land to agricultural population (ha/capita)

Lowlands and uplands compared

These are broad generalizations; they do not apply everywhere.





Biophysical factors

Extension approaches


Steep slopes

Complex technology

Technology simple, promoted step-by-step

Not subject to erosion

Prone to erosion



Package oftechnology

"Menu" of technologies

Little remaining forest

Contain most of the region's remaining forest cover

Package provided Intensive use of chemical inputs

Process facilitated use of leguminous trees and annual crops, animal manure and composting

Deep, fertile soils

Shallow, infertile, marginal al soils



Few NGOs involved

Many NGOs involved

Monocrop rice or vegetable

Complex farming systems

Focus on farm system

Relevant to overall land

Intensive farming

Extensive farming

Predictable field conditions

Unpredictable field conditions

Vital technologies

Water supply

Soil and water conservation

Socioeconomic factors

Hybrid species

Nutrient conservation

Good infrastructure

Poor infrastructure

Pest and disease management

Accessible Remote

Good extension service

Poor extension service

Majority culture

Minority ethnic groups

Little ethnic variation

Large number of ethnic groups

High literacy levels

Low literacy levels

Wage labor

Family labor

Relatively well-off

Relatively poor

Credit easy to provide

Credit difficult to provide



Clear land tenure titles

Complex land tenure status

Land owned privately

Much land owned by government

Characteristics of the uplands

Two features characterize the region's uplands: diversity and change.

Five agroecological situations (Update subhumid and humid tropics)

Five agroecological situations (Arid and semiarid tropics)

Five agroecological situations (Lowland humid tropics)

Five agroecological situations (Temperate uplands)

Five agroecological situations (Alpine uplands)


· The varied topography results in wide variations in soil types and fertility, microclimate and vegetation over short distances.

· Steep slopes and deep ravines make agriculture, transport, communication and the provision of infrastructure difficult.

· Farming systems are complex, with hundreds of different species and varieties of crops grown.

· The uplands are home to the majority of the region's ethnic minorities. For instance:

- 2 million people belonging to 54 ethnic groups in the uplands of Vietnam.
- 1 million members of hill tribes in northern Thailand.

The people in the uplands use a wealth of indigenous techniques, developed and tested over centuries, that can be a valuable resource for development.

Diversified, socioeconomic, cultural and agroecological conditions.

Diversified ethnic groups.

Competition to manage natural resources among individuals, villages, firms, government and NGOs.


Deforestation through logging is rapid, opening up land for cultivation.

Shifting cultivation is sustainable where low population densities allow long fallow periods, but results in erosion, soil depletion and declining yields where rising populations force farmers to shorten fallows.

The overexploitation and depletion of natural resources result in nonsustainable production systems.

Farming systems are changing from a predominantly subsistence basis to the increasing importance of crops and livestock raised for cash

Upland areas in Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines are recovering from the effects of war and civil unrest.

Land uses are changing from forest to agricultural land and agricultural land to settlement.

Problems in the uplands

Degradation of natural resources (soil, water, forests). Soil and water erosion affects an area of 1.79 million km² in China, causing a loss of more than 5 billion tons of soil annually. The nutrients contained in the lost soil are equivalent to 50 million tons of chemical fertilizers.

Changes in climate, biophysical conditions, population and technology, affecting the natural resource carrying capacity and social and economic development

Land tenure

Farmers' limited technical skills

Marketing of agricultural products

Gaps in agricultural production processes, marketing and industry in terms of regulations, technology, human resources and physical infrastructure

Gender issues.

Note: Some of these problems may also be severe in lowland areas.

Negative effects of soil erosion


Some of the region's uplands are densely populated: Examples are the highlands of Java and the midland region of northern Vietnam. Such areas typically have more fertile soils or are near densely populated lowland areas. Others, such as much of Borneo and Papua New Guinea, are lightly populated.

The population in the uplands is increasing. These areas are experiencing movements of people in two different directions:

· Young people in the uplands are moving to the cities in search of employment, leaving children and the elderly in the villages. This results in critical shortages of labor during planting and harvesting.

· At the same time, people from the lowlands are moving into upland areas in search of cultivable land. Often, these newcomers use inappropriate farming techniques. They also bring different cultural values from the traditional ethnic groups in the hills. They clash with local people for the ownership of land that has traditionally been farmed on a shifting cultivation basis by the ethnic minorities.

Natural growth and migration from the lowlands mean that upland populations are rising, forcing farmers to cultivate steeper slopes and poorer soils and to leave land fallow for shorter periods. This exacerbates the problems of erosion, soil fertility and water conservation. Many upland areas suffer from severe erosion: 40% of the Jratunseluna watershed in Central Java is degraded.

Complex relationships

Farmers, extensionists and researchers must consider many factors:

· biophysical (soil, water, trees, pests, slope, climate, etc.)
· social (individuals, households, labor, education, skills, etc.)
· economic (credit, commodity prices, etc.).

The complex relationships among these factors help determine the existing farming system and the range of opportunities open to farmers - and the types of soil and water conservation measures they are likely to be able to implement. (See also Levels of decision-making.)

Components, not technology packages

The diversity of the uplands means it is impossible to apply single solutions or unified packages of technologies to agricultural problems in the uplands. Rather than trying to design and promote whole-farm systems, experience has shown it is more useful develop and promote components of systems. Farmers can then choose from a "menu" of technologies—some indigenous, some introduced and some a result of a blend of indigenous and introduced technologies. They can select and adapt those technologies that best suit their own unique needs.

Research and extension approaches

The diversity of ecosystems, culture and languages also makes research and extension work difficult. Research institutions have generally focused on lowland areas, to the relative neglect of the uplands. Much of this research has been of marginal relevance to problems faced by upland farmers, partly because of poor linkages between research, extension and farmers. In addition, relevant research findings have not been widely disseminated to extension services and farmers.

Extension services in the uplands are generally weak, with a few, underqualified and poorly paid staff required to cover large areas. Conventional research and extension approaches are clearly unsuited in these conditions. Various alternatives have been tested in the uplands, emphasizing participatory approaches to develop productive, sustainable farming systems. These approaches include participatory technology development, farmer-to-farmer extension and farming systems development.

Integrated, participatory approaches

Many agricultural development and natural resources management programs have been very specific in their disciplinary approach, commodity and farming systems orientation. Program orientations have sometimes ignored local conditions, basic community needs and the need for human development. integrated, participatory approaches are needed to ensure that interventions address local problems and are sustainable. New programs seek to increase productivity yet minimize environmental destruction and try to improve the quality of the environment. These programs are integrated and diversified to ensure balance between economic and ecological considerations. The uplands are the focus of several major government programs and smallscale, innovative approaches, often implemented by NGOs.

Institutions involved in the uplands

national government local government
research institutes
extension services
infrastructure services
nongovernment organizations
farmer groups
indigenous organizations
input suppliers
marketing organizations

Examples of integrated program approaches

soil and water conservation
integrated pest management
social forestry
watershed management

Major soil and water conservation projects in China

Some programs using integrated upland development approaches in Indonesia and the Philippines