Shifting cultivation, livelihoods and change : a study of agricultural decisions in Xieng Ngeun District, Lao PDR : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Philosophy in Development Studies at Massey University
Shifting cultivation has long provided a livelihood for upland farmers in the tropics. However, recent years have seen increasing political, environmental and economic pressure on these farming systems and those who practice them. In the Lao PDR, shifting cultivation is a priority development issue; government policy is to replace it with sedentary forms of agriculture by the year 2010. Alternatives to existing practices are being researched and extended to farmers through both the public and private sector, and farmers are faced with an increasing range of choices for their livelihoods, which remain largely agriculturally-based. Their responses to these new opportunities, and their ability to take advantage of them, will be important to the sustainability of their livelihoods into the future. Recognising that agricultural changes take place in the context of people's livelihoods, this thesis applies a livelihoods approach to the study of household agricultural decisions in the Lao PDR. It investigates farmer responses to introduced forage technologies for the intensification of livestock production in four upland villages of Xieng Ngeun District, in order to explore the relationship between livelihoods and change. Many aspects of people's livelihoods are found to shape their decisions. In particular, access to resources can be important in the ability to take advantage of opportunities. Activities such as livestock raising require an initial cash investment that may preclude poorer households from specialising in them; thus these households are less able to benefit from livestock-related technologies. Households' existing livelihood strategies and the resulting livelihood outcomes also influence their ability and desire to intensify livestock production through managed forages. The wider context within which livelihoods are constructed may both facilitate and constrain change in a particular direction. In addition to those issues commonly identified in livelihoods frameworks, other factors also need to be considered. The importance of farmer perceptions in particular is highlighted and it is suggested that this, along with the characteristics of the technology itself in relation to people's livelihood situation, be included in the framework for application to the study of agricultural change. Finally, the thesis finds the livelihoods approach to be a useful and practical way of focusing attention on issues at the local level and placing rural people at the centre of development-related analysis.