Q+A: Turbulence in the field: Winds of change buffet agroforestry in Vietnam

Elisabeth Simelton on Day of Women and Girls in Science
Elisabeth Simelton (third from right), a climate change scientist with CIFOR-ICRAF, plants trees with farmers in the climate-smart village My Loi in Ha Tinh province, north central Vietnam. CIFOR-ICRAF/Handout

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When Elisabeth Simelton was small, she was shocked by images on TV of children experiencing the famine that led to millions of deaths in the aftermath of Nigeria’s 30-month Biafra war, which ended in 1970.

She was determined to help.

“I wanted to send a sandwich through the post to those children so that they could eat,” she said.

In adulthood, for more than 25 years, Simelton has been working with farmers, coaching them to build resilience in their fields by using their own knowledge and applying agroforestry techniques.

Her gender-sensitive perspective on agroforestry is a give-and-take process, an approach that has contributed to influencing the way agriculture is undertaken and farmers are viewed in Vietnam and beyond.

A climate scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) based in Vietnam since 2010, she believes that creating resilient farming systems is essential. Resilience includes having the capacity to free up farmers to earn additional income through economic migration.

By sending remittances home to the farm, they support the family members left behind to build resilience through increased crop diversification and to reduce disaster response time.

“The smallholder farm is a source of food security and income for families, but migration for employment is critical for reducing and reversing exposure to natural disasters, covering health expenses and coping with the vagaries of weather and the climate,” Simelton said.

Originally, she hails from Sweden where she grew up on a dairy farm with her grandparents.

“I feel as though I’ve lived through 200 years of history,” she said. “We had 20 red and white cows, pigs and a horse to work in the forest. We did have tractors, but not to work in the forest. This was sound ecosystem management.”

She earned a Ph.D. in geography, and during a visit to Vietnam she became intrigued by tropical agroforestry systems, which were constructed on slopes, and often included cassava, rice, fruit, ducks and a pond for fish.

Initially, through a scholarship, she had the opportunity to study and learn the geography of Vietnam. As time passed, she switched her focus to learn more about how farmers are adapting and mitigating the impact of climate change.

Simelton spoke with Forests News ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, sharing insights and perspectives gained over 25 years of researching agroforestry systems in Europe, southern Africa, and East and Southeast Asia.

Q: What was your career path?

A: I didn’t know what I wanted to become until I was 28. I went to university at 25 – I was the first in my family to do so. Initially, I thought I was going to be a journalist, but I didn’t have good enough grades to become a journalist. So, I decided to become a social science teacher.

Q: What kind of advice would you give to women or girls wanting to get into science?

A: I would say they should try follow their dream. And don’t listen to people who tell you that you cannot do something because you’re a girl, that you should stay home and get married or similar. If you have a drive, to become a scientist — to study and to do research — then go for it, because it will reward you.

The role of networks is really important. Don’t be scared to ask questions of someone who can put you on the next trail or recommend something. I meet more women than men in agroforestry networks now, which is different than when I started out.

I’m now asking what happened to the guys? My worry is that in pursuing gender equality as in promoting women only, we forget about the guys, or they feel excluded — and become violent to get attention.

Especially in developing countries girls have a hard, steep hill to climb to move forward. There are cultural rules, and there can be abuse in some situations where people want to take advantage of them. Just be careful. I would hope women will at least support each other and help find someone to trust and speak with.

I’ve been lucky to have good role models – both women and men – but the women have been important as a sounding board to just discuss some particular types of ideas, I think.

Q: How do you define a “scientist” – what is the difference between a scientist and a practitioner?

A: I consider anyone with a Ph.D. – whether a social scientist or natural scientist – to be a scientist. But in my work in Vietnam, I don’t meet so many women who have a Ph.D. Among the younger generation, I think this has less to do with gender — there are bigger differences between those who have an education from Vietnam or from a foreign country — for example, because English language is important for communicating research internationally.

Thinking about what defines a scientist — it has to do with accumulated knowledge as well, which farmers also have because they live in the same place and repeat the work on the land. They are the ones who have been there, you know, longer than we – as scientists – have, they know all about the soil and how it behaves – or how animals behave. For me, that’s a farmer scientist. When I was growing up, I watched my grandfather taking notes on everything he did in the field. In that sense, he was a scientist – similar to what we are trying to get farmers here in Vietnam to do as well – to keep a record and take notes and write it up. For me, that is a scientific aspect of farming to record, reflect and then adapt.

It’s a give and take because the farmers, of course, give us information, knowledge that we don’t have and, and share their observations. And we can share other ideas because we read lots of research papers or follow what happens in other parts of the world. We can also forecast from a helicopter perspective — not that we know exactly what will happen, but we can foresee some things that may happen because of climate change and make suggestions for changing what they grow or what they do.

We can teach farmers about how to plan — how to technically plan — how to lay out a contour line on a slope. Farmers are the experts really, and we can discuss with them when they want to try new trees, whether they go well together physiologically so that they can build up a stronger ecosystem, with roots and canopies, so that there’s no competition between the trees. There is some science behind that.

Q: What challenges do farmers face in Vietnam?

Since the planned economy ended with the opening policies dổi mới in the 1980s-1990s, farmers need to think and plan more for business and market activities, not just for the weather. Adding climate change on top of that requires more strategic thinking now and for decades into the future, which they may not have done before. A lot of traditional knowledge seems to seek out patterns and cycles, but things don’t always happen in cycles. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, abrupt changes can occur. So, farmers need to be prepared for various challenges, I think that’s where we as scientists and researchers can help them, and agricultural policymakers, to make more strategic decisions.

Q: What have you observed in terms of the impact of climate change?

 A: The weather in Vietnam has certainly changed. It’s noticeable in the shifting of seasons — like people say they notice everywhere. When I came to Vietnam for the first time in the mid-1990s, I was interviewing farmers about soil conservation methods on slopes. At that time, they spoke about the wild bamboo in the forests drying out because the weather was changing. At that time, some scientists had started talking about climate change, but it wasn’t really a big story at that time — we all referred to it as “the future climate change.”

Q: Did that research have an influence on you?

A: Yes, it triggered a question in my mind: If we’re now in the tropics and bamboo is drying out, how about where the climate is already dry? How dry will it be there as the climate changes? And how do these people survive? Then, I could see only that the bamboo leaves were dry in the field, but I don’t know if that depended on climate change or not. It planted an idea to go and study more about how people in dry climates survive. I started focusing my research on climate change for my Ph.D. at the beginning of the millennium.

Q: Are you studying dry areas?

A: Some of my dearest projects are in central Vietnam. For half of the year, it’s really dry, like a Mediterranean climate, and the other half of the year, it’s humid tropics with typhoons. It can also get very cold – to around 10 degrees Celsius — so it’s a mixed bag, which is even more difficult in terms of climate adaptation, because crops and trees must be able to tolerate a big span of different climatic situations.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in terms of the work on climate and in the climate smart villages?

A: The climate smart villages were an interesting experiment, but it was too small a project to generate standalone evidence for scaling out — the funding just wasn’t there. I think of them as a seed fund for the province to test new ideas and to experiment, that helped us getting more funds to scale out. But what happens when the funding is not there anymore is a challenge in many projects, especially this time after covid when so much of the baselines have changed.

Q: Do you see any potential for intervention on the climate — what will make a change or a difference?

Agroforestry and its mitigation potential is getting a lot of attention, finally. I would I hope that this attention can continue because trees are investments for farmers. Not only can trees provide fruit and other produce, but they also contribute to other benefits that farmers may not see directly in terms of mitigation. They can earn money – and I really hope that farmers can get a bigger share of the price that the consumer pays for their produce, a share that also reflects all the uninsured risks farmers bear during the production.

Farmers need income, they need to pay their bills and send their kids to school. So that means there should be a guaranteed minimum income, especially when the produce is exported to Europe and the United States. We who can afford to pay farmers a stable share, should do so. For many farmers, the option is to go and work in the factory or to stay in agriculture. Many will go to the factory because they know they will earn a stable income. Where will they go if they lose the jobs in the factory?

Q: What do you think about the decline in the number of farmers?

A: I’ve often asked myself how many farmers are needed. Let’s say there are probably two children in each household here, in other countries, there may be more children in each farm household, but you only really need one if you don’t want to split up the farmland. I think that it is very, very important to maintain land in smallholder systems, rather than converting to more big, industrial farms.

Some people argue that largescale farms are more effectively managed because they can do precision agriculture, including tractors with a GPS and monitoring but research also shows that this seems to take place at the expense of ecosystem functions, like biodiversity and soil degradation. It is a complex question with many answers. If one child in a smallholder household can continue to be a farmer/ecosystem steward, that’s a good thing, I think, and his or her siblings may need to get non-farm incomes and contribute in other ways to the one who tends the farm.

For more information on this topic, please contact Elisabeth Simelton at
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