25 February 2013

Planting in the riverbank...

LUANG PRABANG, LAOS- FEBRUARY 19: Locals and Tourists Farm, Swim, and Relax on the Banks of the Nam Khan River Where it Meets the Mekong on February 19, 2011 in Luang Prabang, Laos Stock Photo - 8944949
Nam Khan River

I recently went on a day-long kayaking trip in the Nam Lik River in Laos. A friend of mine was with me and commented on how isolated we were. I pointed out the riverbank farms (or riverbed agriculture) and small fish traps we passed by. We are not alone here, I said. True, the footprint is small and a bit hidden, but people are definitely here. The locals are cultivating in the fertile soils of the river banks, taking advantage of the natural cyclical sediment movement.

Farming in riverbeds and riverbanks is typically a traditional method of farming. This method takes advantage of fertile soils caused by the ebbs and flows in river systems. Sediment is carried by water from erosion in highlands, and moved along with the flood season. When the water flow levels out, the sediment is deposited in the river banks, in the flood plain, in the riverbed itself. This is something studied in the west to better understand how contaminated soils move, but in many other places, the movement of this sediment is known to provide for good harvest.

I saw this method of farming in my field site area of the Benishongul-Gumuz Blue Nile Valley area in Ethiopia, and am seeing it again here in Laos on the Mekong River. The World Bank has a piece about riverbed farming on their blogsite. The Bank's blog suggests that riverbed farming is a way to buffer the landless from poverty. But, with all the river engineering projects that the Bank promotes, aren't they also promoting the loss of this subsistence way of life through development?