Agro-Ecology Solutions for Ecosystem Restoration in Northern Thailand
Deciduous watershed forest
Hectares in the process of restoration so far
Measures used in this project
The plight of high biodiversity landscapes in northern Thailand: Consequences of an unsustainable food system
Northern Thailand contains some of the most intact natural and biodiverse landscapes in the entire Greater Mekong region. However, over the past decades, and owing to a rising international market demand for industrial food and fuel, there has been much more agricultural intensification by smallholder farmers. This has mainly been for monoculture cash crops, such as maize, which is used for animal feed, primarily in the production of meat, and which Thailand exports to the world market.
This type of farming has lead to an increase in the use of agrochemicals, deforestation, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions, which have impacted upon local food systems and farmer health, as well as compromised the region’s biodiversity and ecosystem services. Furthermore, legal and economic measures for promoting sustainable agriculture do not exist. According to WWF Thailand (2019), approximately 800,000 hectares of Thailand’s forest has now been encroached upon for cash crop plantation, the majority of which are clustered in watershed forests in northern Thailand.
In preparing the land for cultivation, smallholder maize farmers adopt the method of open burning of agricultural residues. This further impacts the surrounding forests through encroachment and also leads to the problem of heavy haze pollution which contains soot-particles, carbon dioxide and other toxic gases that contribute to climate change and impacts upon human health. At the same time, degradation of their land from years of agrochemicals usage means that farmers face challenges to grow other crops for their own subsistence. This means that they lose their agency and self-sufficiency as their livelihood solely relies on a monoculture crop, which has a fluctuating selling price. Most monoculture farmers therefore become stuck in a cycle of debt. In order to improve these local farmer livelihoods, regional food security and overall ecosystem integrity, it is critical to restore the health of this degraded landscape, reduce agrochemical monoculture practices, and work towards creating a sustainable food system.
Introducing project FLR349: A nature-based solution model
In 2018, Project “FLR349” (also known as Forest for Earth) was established in the country’s northern provinces of Chiangmai and Nan by WWF Thailand, as a nature-based solution model that addresses the challenges created by unsustainable agricultural practices. The project’s main objective is to transform current forest-encroaching mono-agriculture operations into the “Three Forests, Four Benefits” agricultural system; a system which appreciates the value of forests and the benefits that they provide including food, fuel, shelter and shade.
Through the application of this approach, the intention is to boost local food security and livelihoods, reduce the health risks associated with chemically intensive monocultures and preserve farmland biodiversity. This will be achieved through farmers learning innovative and sustainable techniques, such as growing perennial crops, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in a mixed cropping systems. This will enable restoration of degraded land as well as soil replenishment and vitality, whilst at the same time, helping farmers to generate a higher income from organic produce sales. According to Mr Ply Pirom from WWF Thailand, and the project manager of WWF’s Sustainable Consumption and Production programme:
The plan is to incentivise farmers to switch from agrochemical monoculture farming to mixed crop farming. This will ensure that farmers not only have enough income, food, fuel and shelter but it will also reduce forest clearing that was required to make way for cash crops”
Currently, on average, smallholder farmers are practicing monoculture agriculture on two to six hectares. FLR349 will fund a maximum of 1.6 hectares per household at approximately 64 dollars (2,000 baht) for every 0.16 hectares. The area will be funded for six years to aid with transformation efforts, and so the smallholder farmers remain self-reliant after the project ceases. To join the project, the smallholder farmers must commit to halting monoculture agriculture and eliminate the use of agrochemicals, on their whole land not just the areas funded by FLR349. The remaining areas will be left to natural rehabilitation processes; therefore the project has the potential to halt monoculture in approximately five times the amount of area reforested.
Thanks to the application of this ‘agro-ecology’ approach and the development of a sustainable value chain, farmers can break free from the endless cycle of debt that they find themselves when farming cash crops. This system also supports the achievement of many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Inspiration behind the project
A key inspiration and driving philosophy behind the project has been King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s, Rama IX of Thailand’s, “Sufficiency Economy Philosophy”; a philosophy based on the principles of Thai culture, and, one which promotes a balanced and sustainable way of living. For the FLR349 project, this philosophy has played a central role in the development of sustainable value chains for farmers living in these watershed areas. The FLR349 project falls under WWF’s Sustainable Consumption and Production programme, which is funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) from the German government. According to Mr Pirom:
We received this funding as a seed fund to promote sustainable consumption and production and to mainstream it. The heavy deforestation that has been happening in northern Thailand from maize production inspired us to get involved and establish the project, using the Kings philosophy as a guide.
To be able to replicate and scale up nationwide by 2030, the project aims to fundraise 47 million USD - from both business partners and crowd funds - to enable the establishment of productive forests across area of 8,000 hectares and turn a degraded watershed forest area into sustainable ecosystem.
A collective effort towards agro-ecology solutions and restoration impact
One of the most innovative aspects of the project is the application of agro-ecology solutions. According to the FAO (2020), “agro-ecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to manage interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment for food security and nutrition”. For the FLR349 project, this approach ensures that there is mixed cropping which not only sustains the ecosystem and land but also generates an income to farmers e.g. through the sale of fruits and vegetables. As Mr Pirom noted:
Agro-ecology enables crop diversity, healthy soils, restored forest which leads to healthier lives. It is key to work with nature.
Another fundamental and innovative aspect of this project has been the development of multi-level, multi-actor strategic partnerships with leading organisations from various sectors. This includes a strong partnership with the Central Group – one of Southeast Asia’s leading conglomerates with subsidiaries in retail and hospitality- as well as the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), Thailand’s leading agricultural bank.
With the Central Group’s reach, for example, FLR349 has been able to create a market place for organically grown products from the project sites, helping to generate demand and income. Currently, products from the project sites can be found in many of Central Group’s retail stores, including TOPS supermarkets. BAAC’s role in the partnership is to provide suspension on debt repayment and provision of green credit for the smallholder farmers who have joined the program.
In 2020, the project has attracted other large companies to financially contribute to reforestation and local socio-economic development goals. These include Agoda, one of the largest online travel agencies in Asia, and HSBC, one of the leading private banks in the region. As Mr Pirom noted:
Our restoration efforts also benefit business – if this ecosystem is destroyed or nature is depleted, then the they are also impacted.
The intention moving forward is to create a bankable investable model for the project where there is not just an environmental and social return but also a financial return for investors. So far, however, WWF has fundraised for the FLR349 project from both donations and directly from the business sector who want to financially contribute to sustainable development. Also, and through the development of a sustainable value chain, products from the landscape will not only be sold to local food and retail markets, but part of the organic produce will be kept for the farmers own personal consumption, reducing their living expenses. Together these measures will encourage farmers to permanently shift away from intensive agrochemical monoculture practices.
The project faces various challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the impact of climate change in the region and the shift in seasons, which includes periods of heavy rains as well as longer periods of drought. Owing to the current lack of trees and perennial crops in the landscape, the onset of heavy rains and floods leads to heavy erosion. Periods of drought lead to a limited availability of water resources in the landscape. These in turn affect the growing season and the survival of the crops which creates a vicious cycle. To deal with this issue, Mr Pirom stated that:
Using the King's philosophy, we also work with hydrology and make small reservoirs where possible in the landscape to capture and store water.
Since 2020, there has also been the impact of Covid-19 and how this has caused the closure of marketplaces making it difficult for farmers to sell their produce. To address this issue, WWF Thailand, along with partners like The Central Group, established the “Food Sharing for Love” project to create collective actions for collective impacts. As Mr Pirom noted:
During this Covid time, we have matched two problems together. The first problem is that some people in urban areas (e.g. those who are marginalised, vulnerable and/or sick) don't have an income and so cant buy food. The other problem is that farmers currently have nowhere to sell their products. What we have done to bridge this gap is to raise funds through donations to buy the products and donate them to the local urban community. This also helps to revitalise the local economy.
Thanks to this intervention farmers now have more confidence to maintain their mixed cropping systems and sell their products. Also FLR349 partners from the food retail sector in Thailand now see the importance of having consumers and producers closely connected.
Impacts so far
Between 2017- 2019, the project has provided support and worked together with smallholder farmers, cooperatives and local administrative organization at project sites. To date, 1850 smallholder farmers have benefited from the project, and more than 38 smallholder workshops were conducted to validate and share farming practices that better protect the environment. To date, a total of 600 hectares of maize plantation have been converted from monoculture to agro-ecology with over 107 hectares of forest restored so far. A total of 83,558 seedlings of mixed varieties were planted on 72.8 hectares.
In terms of specific impacts, both environmental and socio-economic impacts have been experienced thanks to the intervention of this project. Environmentally speaking, Mr Pirom confirmed that, owing to the shift from agrochemical intensive farming to mixed cropping, improvements have been seen in soil quality including soil biodiversity and water retention capacity. Improvements have also been seen in the local biodiversity specifically and increase in insects, pollinators and birds. Once the restored landscapes are connected to the surrounding national parks again, there will likely be an increase in mammals in the area as well.
Socio-economically, the FLR349 project has facilitated an improvement in farmer income as well as local food security. A recent survey conducted by WWF Thailand found that the income of smallholders has increased by 40% since the first year of the project and could be 3-4 times more in the fifth year, based on projections. Indeed the results from another recent study from the Thailand Development Research Institute Foundation (TDRI) demonstrate that the project has a social return on investment (SROI) of more than eight times the amount invested.
The growing of mixed perennial crops without the aid of agrochemicals will enable conditions where smallholders can become self-reliant all year round, especially in terms of health and income generation. The value chain created with partners will help empower communities, reducing inequality, rejuvenating local economies, while also restoring the local food system so the population will no longer need to source food from elsewhere. The young generation who left the rural areas will have incentive to return home as more sustainable local jobs are created. The project outcomes will also have direct positive impacts on the urban population through its ecosystem services, such as the provision of water supply and purification, and food security.
FLR349 also benefits the wider society. Through the growing of mixed perennial crops, the pilot sites will help safeguard key ecosystem services such as food provisioning services and soil regeneration. Moreover, the haze pollution will also be mitigated due to the reduction of slash and burn agriculture. Having a more sustainable food system will also have wide spread impacts, ensuring access to safe food for a larger group of people, especially organic food which will become more accessible.
Moving out of the maize: The sign of future success in northern Thailand
Thanks to the implementation of the FLR349 project, the conversion of degraded land into profitable, sustainable and edible forests is now being facilitated. But more needs to be done to scale up. As Mr Pirom confirmed:
For ultimate project success, we not only need to continue seeing these positive indicators but we also need to scale these activities and impacts up to 8000 hectares in the next 10 years. The crowd funding platform will enable people from all around the world to donate.
The platform is currently under development and in parallel, My Pirom and his team are also working on a traceability platform that will link up stakeholders along the supply chain, enable them to access information and remote sensing data regarding the food supply chain, make donations to support the operation and track progress of the reforestation efforts. This model would help to rejuvenate the grassroots economy, boost cash flow in the community and encourage sustainable production and consumption. It can even be further developed into eco-tourism. For Mr Pirom:
My dream is to have everyone contribute to this as well as consumers, who can also play a key role to support such an important initiative. I would love to see this kind of concept being replicated more and more across other similar types of projects.
Mr Ply Pirom is a sustainable development specialist and is currently a Project Manager for WWF Thailand’s programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production. He has experience in the fields of engineering, urban environmental management, circular economy, value chain development, renewable energy technologies, forest restoration and agro-ecology and environmental policy advocacy. Throughout his various roles, he has worked closely with the national government, business sectors and civil society in Thailand.