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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

People's participation

People are central to the use and management of resources. People use resources for livelihood. People need these resources for their wants. People use these resources for their luxury.

People's participation is a prerequisite to community-based natural resource management. It is central to a people-centered, sustainable development approach and is a continuous, interactive process.

Participation means that people become the stakeholders and decision-makers. Participation must not be induced or co-opted. People must be the subjects, not the objects of development initiatives. Participation is the essence of responsible stewardship of natural resources.

Participation is not easy.

People's participation requires organization, Interaction, consensusbuilding, decision-making and conflict resolution.

People’s participation

Community-based natural resources management The community-based natural resources management approach is an ongoing, collective initiative by the community to manage its natural resources. It includes eight components.

1 Educate and build awareness.

· Natural resources are the base for food production.
· Natural resources are part of the global life-support system.
· These resources must be used sustainably. (See Indicators of sustainability.)
· It is our civic duty to use, conserve and protect natural resources.

2 Promote sustainable farming and resource use.

· Research and develop sustainable farming and resource use.

· Ensure participation of farm communities.

· Create partnerships among farmers, extensionists and researchers. (See Research-extension-farmer linkages.)

· Respect and build on indigenous knowledge. (See Building on indigenous knowledge. )

3 Conserve and protect sensitive ecosystems.

The community and local government should work together to identify ways to conserve and protect sensitive ecosystems.

Criteria for selecting ecosystems:

Importance of the ecosystem to local livelihood.
Biological diversity and uniqueness.
Contribution to the life-support chain and local culture.

4 Enhance regenerative capacity of natural resources.

Identify ways to stop destruction and pollution of natural resources.

Promote the regenerative.capacity of resources (e.g., tree planting, composting) to prevent erosion. (See Integrated land-use planning in upland areas.)

5 Promote gender equity and participation.

Integrated development programs must ensure women's participation and empowerment. (See Gender analysis.)

6 Ensure indigenous and minority interests.

Indigenous people and other minorities have been robbed of their natural resource base. Their survival is threatened.

Ensure the continued use of resources for the survival of minorities and their cultural practices.

7 Address transboundary issues.

One community can be affected by activities in another community or by pollution from outside. For example, several communities may share a river or beach.

Develop mechanisms to deal with transboundary concerns.
Find ways to internalize production costs.

8 Networking and linkage support.

Provide training to respond to community needs.
Link the community with support agencies, universities and NGOs.
Collaborate with other organizations. (See Resource institutions.)

Implementing community-based natural resources management

1 Selection of site and collaborators

Identify communities.
Identify collaborating NGOs or community organizations.

2 Capacity-building

Train collaborators to mobilize people's participation.
Train in sustainable approaches to natural resource management.

3 Community visioning

Undertake a community visioning with the local leaders, government agencies and officials, women and youth.

4 Understanding the situation

Assess the local situation. (See Participatory appraisal methods. )
Study government plans and interventions.

5 Participatory planning

Assist key community leaders to plan activities.
Validate the plans with as many groups as possible (e.g., women, youth, indigenous people).

6 Implementation

Collaborating group (NGO or people's organization) undertakes implementation.
Involve as many local organized groups as possible.
Ensure that ownership of the project is transferred to the community.

7 Participatory monitoring and evaluation

Regularly monitor activities.
Discuss activities with the participants to evaluate successes and weaknesses.

Levels of decision-making

Agriculture and natural resources management systems are made up of social, biophysical and economic systems. They must be viewed at different levels: from the individual farmer and household, up through the community to the national and international levels. These levels are interrelated and affect each other in various ways.


Different people or organizations make decisions at the various levels. At the farm level, individual members of the farm household (male, female, young, old) make key decisions. The household is the most important decision-making unit in many settings. At the community level, local leaders (both formal and informal) are important. The cultural norms and traditional practices of ethnic groups may also determine the activities of a family or an individual.

Individuals and groups make decisions after considering many factors—social, biophysical and economic (see General systems overview). The perceived risk involved is a major influence. Decision-makers may take a short-term or a long-term view.

Decisions made at one level can affect that level and the lower levels. For example, an individual farmer can decide what crops to plant and this will affect his or her income and the types of pest problems in the field.

Individual decision-makers at one level do not normally affect what happens at higher levels. For instance, an individual farmer's cropping practices do not have a major impact on the amount of soil erosion in a river catchment or on the market price of the crop. However, farmers can have an impact on erosion or price if a large number of individuals make the same decisions, either deliberately (as in a cooperative) or because of external factors (as when they respond to price increases).

Empowerment-a key to sustainable development-means enabling farmers and other rural people to make decisions that affect them, both at their own level and (through community organizations) at higher levels.



Production and decision-making are affected by social, biophysical and economic systems in a given area. These systems are complex and interrelated, leaving farmers with large numbers of choices. An understanding of the many factors and the relationships among them is key to helping farmers make informed decisions. To do this, researchers and extensionists must have a broad understanding of various issues. Frequently, a multidisplinary approach to research is needed. (See General systems overview.)


Social elements include the farmer (male and female, young and old), the household and community. Each of these units has certain characteristics, skills, needs, priorities and rules.

Some social factors, such as management skills, can be changed through training or experience. Others, such as family size, change only in the long run.


Physical systems include soils, topography, climate, water and location. Biological elements include crops and livestock, insects and diseases.

Some of these can be altered by the scientist or farmer. For instance, water availability can be improved by building irrigation facilities. Crop yield potential can be increased by breeding droughtresistant varieties or by the use of fertilizers.


Economic components include village stores, input suppliers, and processing and marketing systems. These help determine the demand for a commodity, supply of inputs and prices of produce.

Many economic factors are determined at more macro levels, so are largely outside the control of individual farmers. However, they may be amenable to change by group action, cooperatives and government programs.

Scientific disciplines

Different scientific disciplines tend to address systems at certain levels. For instance, agronomists and plant pathologists focus on cropand field-level biophysical systems. Community organizers are interested in the multifarm and community levels. Some disciplines (such as ecology) span a wide range of levels.

Role of the extensionists at various levels

The extensionist works mainly at the farmer, household and community levels (levels I to 4) in the system. He or she has little control over characteristics determined at higher levels (such as commodity prices and disease epidemics). The extensionist's role depends on the level of the system.

Crop and field levels

At the crop and field levels (levels 1 and 2), interactions among the soil, plants and insects are the key. The farmer can, to a certain extent, control these interactions through the choice of crop, planting time, application of compost or artificial fertilizers and management of pests. The role of the extensionist is to help the farmer decide what are the most appropriate ways of controlling these interactions—for instance, by helping identify promising local knowledge, testing technologies and introducing new ideas.

Farm level

At the farm level (level 3), the extensionist can help the farmer design changes in his or her farm system, such as introducing a new enterprise or assisting in the construction of soil conservation measures.

Community level

At the community level (level 4), the extensionist can help farmers and other rural people become organized so they can have an impact on higher-level systems. For instance, a cooperative can affect the marketing system and thereby the price that farmers received for their produce. A farmer group can test and implement soil and water conservation techniques in a microcatchment, reducing soil erosion and improving productivity in this area

Watershed level

At the watershed level (level 5), the extensionist can help test the applicability of improved management practices so they can be promoted over a wider area. The extensionist can facilitate cooperation and exchange of information among villages and ethnic groups. He or she can also influence local governments to improve market systems and the accessibility of remote villages.