Frogs – A leap towards climate change resilience

Kongsy and his frogs
Kongsy and his frogs. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/Somlith Khounpaseuth

As the first ray of sun hits the foliage, Kongsy walks up to a small area, fenced off with blue mesh screen at the end of his garden, containing a small puddle. Gentle cooing sounds lure a group of the smallest dwellers in his household garden right into Kongsy’s hands, which are holding a treasure: a bag filled with small pellets, bought at the local market to feed his population of about 100 frogs.

The East Asian bullfrog, known by the scientific name of Hoplobatrachus rugulosus, with its brown rubbery skin freckled with black dots, is small in size but large in benefit. Fresh markets in Laos are teeming with them, as frog meat is an important protein constituent of the rural Lao diet, stewed into large pots or deep-fried in oil. One kilogram of frog meet sells for about USD 3 right in the village and can fetch even higher prices in nearby cities.

“I received three bags of 100 frogs each from the project and have been trained in how to raise and cultivate them”, says Kongsy, emptying his bag, as his toads clumsily splash in and out of the water to leash out their sticky tongues on the objects of their desire.

“The project” is the recently closed Improving the Resilience of the Agricultural Sector to Climate Change, implemented by the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute of the Lao Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility. IRAS, as the project was fondly abbreviated by its eager implementers at the Provincial and District Agriculture and Forestry Offices of its two target provinces Xayaboury and Savannakhet in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, has raised awareness for climate change adaptation and resilience and provided related training and equipment in 35 villages of the poorest country of Southeast Asia.

Climate change is not a common concept for subsistence farmers in Laos, a country where 80% of the population relies on the yields of both cultivated and untilled land. The country has just submitted its climate action plan to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as an important background document to the international Climate Change Conference known as COP 21 in Paris at the end of this year. The agreement hoped for is a new global deal to tackle climate change and reduce emissions to keep the temperature from rising above a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius. Laos has its own strategy to contribute to this end, and IRAS has had a tangible share in it.

“We have tried to make sure that climate change is included in the new five-year National Socio-Economic Development Plan, which directs the activities of the government and determines the course of the country between 2016 and 2020”, says Manfred Staab, UNDP’s former Technical Advisor leading IRAS’ activities at the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute. “Before our efforts, a keyword search with the term “climate change” yielded 4-5 hits with only generic referral to the problem.” The project has raised awareness on climate change and its impacts, influencing policy makers through capacity building activities and indirect lobbying.

In order to persuade decision makers, one needs hard data. IRAS has applied technology to make this link, using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to forecast land use until 2070 in target provinces – selected by their vulnerability and the number of drought and flood events caused by changes in weather patterns. This data entered village disaster and land use plans, where - amongst other parameters - areas prone to flood, drought and erosion were included as a novelty introduced by IRAS, making the data sets useful for land planning and disaster preparedness purposes.

Highlights

  • Climate change is emerging as a significant risk to socio-economic development in Lao PDR, with the potential to increase the vulnerability of the rural poor.
  • Working in drought-prone provinces of Lao PDR, IRAS worked on reducing the vulnerability of farmers to extreme flooding and drought events through the introduction of an applied ecosystems-based approach to agriculture.
  • IRAS achieved a significant and measurable reduction in food insecurity among targeted households who, as a result of the project, have been actively implementing climate adaptation measures.

On the village level, the project has introduced crop diversification as a key element of resilience to climate change. Resistant rice species were proliferated in order to improve the production of this main food crop. Villagers were taught how to grow Napier grass, a versatile species suitable for animal fodder, and how to apply simple fish and frog breeding techniques.

Kongsy and fellow farmers of Phin Neua, his village in the Southern Lao province of Savannakhet, have learnt these methods not directly from the project implementers, but through their sons and daughters, who participated in a series of trainings organised at the village school. Instructed by IRAS project implementers, 20 teachers and all 670 students of Phin Primary and Secondary School constructed a pond and nursery garden to field training activities. Students and teachers were taught how to plant vegetables and herbs aside from the ubiquitous rice. Onion, mint, several types of cabbage, leek, chili, green peas and cucumbers are now happily growing in home gardens across the village – because students are the best teachers. The children have not only learnt how to plant and care for the new crops, but are instrumental in conveying their new knowledge on sustainable techniques such as using herbs as insecticides, bio-composting and rainwater storage. “We can sell our vegetables and the surplus rice on the local market now”, says Ms. Nouban, a teacher at Phin School. “With this money, we are now able to support the studies of all our four children.”

IRAS has produced 6 training modules for climate change adaptation with 70 technical activities (examples include planting broad beans and dill, or raising fish and frogs), complete with printed booklets and training methodology. Government officials and village farmers selected suitable activities from this range to implement in their village during the project’s implementation phase between 2011 and 2015. Now, after the project’s successful closure, local officials are eager to bring the project results to other Lao provinces. Above mentioned adaptation activities as well as trainings on disaster risk preparedness and gender and climate change adaptation developed and piloted by the project are scheduled for implementation in other parts of the country. Instrumental in disseminating the results of the project and implementing its tried, tested and proven activities is the new Research Center on Climate Resilience in the Agriculture Sector, to be inaugurated in a few weeks by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.   

The Phin School pond is one of the 15 small reservoirs and 12 ponds created during the project. It is teeming with fish, generating enough income to re-invest into needed fodder and seedlings for the school’s garden and livestock raising activities.  The pond is also functioning as a valuable asset in those days of unexpected drought, as rainy seasons are more frequently interrupted by bouts of dry spells now – which destroys already planted seedlings. Irrigation from the pond takes care of this problem.

Alternating floods and droughts have in the past caused the villagers of Phin to fear for their rice harvests and, on occasion, go hungry. Now, they are looking into a brighter future. “Villagers now know not only how they can make sure they can feed their families, but they also understand the reasons for the changes in weather conditions”, smiles Ms. Bounsuay, Head of the District Agriculture and Forestry Office’s Agriculture Unit. “This type of knowledge helps them use both old practices and new techniques that do not contribute to the reasons for climate change.” For Kongsy, raising bullfrogs was a new activity that started with a leap of faith. Now, it’s business as usual – and it has allowed him to take his family into a financially and environmentally sustainable future.