| SUBSISTENCE ECONOMIES - Suburban fields
Urban and peri-urban agriculture and aquaculture are common in Asia and for populations with few resources they can make all the difference. A patch of earth or a pond is all it takes to engage in an activity that nevertheless raises some complex environmental and even economic issues. Two Euro-Asian projects are currently studying these distinctive systems from the perspective of sustainable development.
"The first stage in our research involves understanding these systems in all their complexity,” explains David Little of Stirling University (UK), the Papussa coordinator. “After two years of work, we are now completing an initial analysis that allows us to classify the major health risks faced by producers and consumers. It is thus a long-term effort.” The task is no easier for the Rurbifarm partners who explain that “the only way to develop sustainable solutions is by combining scientific data with local knowledge and perceptions”.
Fertilisers, pesticides and water quality
Environmental, agronomic and health measurements must be taken systematically at representative sites and conclusions drawn. All the players involved – farmers, agricultural technicians, city officials, local authorities, etc. – must be consulted within the participatory approach to produce databases and information systems that describe all aspects of the agricultural systems. At a second stage, the researchers will then be able to propose improvements and decision-support tools which take into account the varied interests.
As part of this approach, Ingrid Oeborn – a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Uppsala) and Rurbifarm coordinator – is analysing a number of Chinese sites. “The problems differ of course from one site to another. In a suburb of Najing, for example, it is the intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides in peri-urban farming that are dangerous to the environment that is causing most concern. The plots here are fertilised with manure from a major industrial rearing plant. In Wuxi, in the Yang Tse valley, it is air pollution and, above all, the contamination of irrigation water by heavy metals from industry that pose the problem.” Another study, on a site close to Hanoi (Vietnam), will be carried out to compare a traditional market gardening system with an experimental plot developed by the project’s Thai partner, the University of Chiang Mai.
Aquaculture: fish and vegetables
The encroaching city
The real threat, however, is the pressure of urbanisation which could lead to the loss of these pools that provide a living for the impoverished communities. Advancing constructions and the build-up of sediments are gradually eating away at the lake into which 80% of the waste water of Phnom Penh flows, and where the aquatic potato is grown. The same scenario is found in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. “Town planners know little about these aquaculture systems or the communities that depend on them. Nor do they show much interest in them. There is also no communication between the institutions responsible for urban waste, water treatment, the sewers, agriculture and leisure activities, etc. Even the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) fails to include this production in its aquaculture statistics,” explains David Little. After two years of analysing these situations, researchers will propose changes to the culture systems and then test them in a life-size model for six months.
Apart from their own results – decision-support tools, document bases, improvements to the sites studied – the Rurbifarm and Papussa projects could serve as an example and enable the concept of sustainability to be included in peri-urban and urban agricultural and fish farming developments throughout Asia. "Everybody involved in these projects in one way or another, especially the youngest people, have shown real enthusiasm,” continues David Little. “Asian students who were able to work with European partners showed total commitment and provided research of great quality. This experience could well give them ideas for the future…”