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© Jittrapon Kaicome for WWF Thailand

Research study : Assessment of the potential for forest restoration through agroecology in watershed class 1, 2

Environmental, social, and economic issues will continue to rise if monoculture agriculture in watershed areas are not converted to more sustainable practices, according to Research study : Assessment of the potential for forest restoration through agroecology in watershed class 1, 2.  The new research study findings outlines a stark outlook for the future and clear issues that will persist if monoculture agriculture areas in Thailand’s watersheds class 1,2 remains unchanged. 

Of the total 12.4 million rai of monoculture agriculture in Thailand, 5.4 million rai are located in class 1,2 watershed, encroaching upon and deforesting important forest areas. 10% of the 5.4 million rai relies on burning practices, but this has improved gradually due to public pressure and policy to address crops burning

In the comprehensive study, monoculture agriculture areas in watersheds class 1,2 covering 4,583 Sub-districts in 42 Provinces were compared on 3 scenarios using 1) carbon emissions 2) biodiversity 3) income/economic value 4) food security. It is evident that the current monoculture agriculture system in place in the watersheds forests contributes to the climate and biodiversity crises we are currently facing.

The study compared results from 2017 baseline figures with simulated figures for the year 2027.

The three scenarios were
  1. If the area remains monoculture agriculture
  2. Converted into forests, an increase of 10 percent per year for ten years (2017-2027)
  3. Converted to agroforestry – as the ‘Three Forests, Four Benefits’ model, an increase of 10 percent per year for ten years (2017-2027).
Conducted by Thai AI, a subsidiary of Thaicom PLC., for WWF Thailand the research provides clear indications of improvements in environmental, social, and economic factors if there is a conversion away from monoculture agriculture. Not only that but it also provides scientific backup to the claims by the FLR349 project that monoculture agriculture is the root cause to many of societal issues. The evidence is clear, monoculture agriculture is, and will continue to create major problems if unchanged. Therefore, we need to pioritise watersheds class 1,2 that has been encroached upon for monoculture and convert them to more sustainable practices.

In comparing three scenarios, there is one constant. Clear opportunity costs can be observed if no changes are made to the area and monoculture agriculture remains the primary practice. The results also demonstrates that agroforestry models like the Three Forests, Four Benefits model employed in the FLR349 project can contribute to Net Zero Targets and help achieve Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Moreover, the findings from the studies were used to calculate priority areas, or areas in most urgent need of attention. The results shows that Kong Khaek Sub-district, where the FLR349 project is based is one of the most urgent area in the whole country, indicating that the project is tacking the right areas. The priority areas also demonstrates the need to expand the conversion from monoculture agriculture to other areas in the country.

Carbon emissions
In examining carbon emissions, the findings show that that conversion away from monoculture agriculture to agroforestry in watersheds class 1,2 could reduce carbon emissions by more than 98%.

In the 2017 baseline yar the monoculture areas observed in the study had 1,695,334 tonsCO2 emitted. This includes high emissions in both Chiang Mai (2nd) and Nan (7th) Provinces, the two current provinces where the FLR349 project is based which are among the top ten most polluting provinces.

Comparing the three scenarios, in 2027 carbon emissions in the examined areas will continue to rise if the areas remain monoculture agriculture. While emissions will exponentially decrease if converted to either forests or agroforestry.

With forests, there is an almost 100% decrease in carbon emissions with the results showing the scenario will results in only 639 tonsCO2 remaining, while agroforestry saw a 98.3% decrease in emissions with expected emissions of 28,782 tonsCO2.

Unexpectedly, agroforestry has higher emissions than forest. This is due to the report assuming the coffee and cacao in the model will not be grown organically and will still rely on conventional agricultural practices, which emits CO2. The conversion to agroforestry therefore has the potential to be even more positive than the study suggests if the crops are grown through organic methods.

Evidentially a lot to be gained in terms of environmental benefits and goals to reach net zero by converting away from monoculture agriculture.
The findings also show that conversion to agroforestry will nearly double the biodiversity index utilised in the study. Using normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI), the study found that base on 2017 baseline, the monoculture agriculture areas in the watershed class 1,2 had a low NDVI of 0.4198. This indicates the lack of green areas and the destruction of lush and important watersheds forests as a result of encroachment of monoculture agriculture.

This issue will only worsen if no changes are made, with NDVI dropping to 0. 3798 if the area remains monoculture agriculture by 2027. Alternatively, NDVI will increase to 0.6698 if converted to forests and 0.7198 for agroforestry, nearly double of if the area remains monoculture agriculture.

Once again, the environmental benefits and opportunity gained from converting away from monoculture agriculture is evident in the results.

Income/economic value.
Environmental benefits are not the only factors gained from a conversion away from monoculture agriculture. The study also examined and simulated the household income/economic value for the 3 scenarios and found that a conversion to agroforestry will increase income by nearly 10 times.

For the 2017 baseline the income from monoculture agriculture (maize) totaled 7.9 billion baht from all the Sub-districts combined. The amount of income is reduced if by 2027 the area remains monoculture generating more issues.

However, clear livelihood improvements can be seen in a conversion away. In 2027 a conversion to forests will more than double the income generated (7.9 billion baht to 16.6 billion baht.) Where as a conversion to agroforestry can increase income by nearly 10-fold (from 7.9 billion baht to 78.2 billion baht).

Food security
Another crucial dimension examined by the study is food security, which is heavily impacted by the path taken as seen by the large differences in each of the scenarios.
The 2017 baseline food security score was 3.82. By 2027 if the area remains monoculture this will  half with food security dropping to 1.91.Whereas forests and agroforestry will see an increase to 4.25 and 4.70 respectively, which will greatly help tackle the biodiversity crisis we are currently facing.

Evidently, this research provides scientific backing for the FLR349 project’s claims that monoculture agriculture is the root cause of many problems. The continual planting of monoculture will increase carbon emissions though agricultural burning and result in the reduction of biodiversity. Income and food security are also reduced due to the destruction of the environment. A switch to forests results in reduction of carbon emissions due to less agricultural burning, and an increase in biodiversity and food security at similar rates to the FLR349 model. However, FLR349 generates more income for farmers through sustainable yields.

There is a need to convert away from the harmful practice, not only for environmental benefits and the contributes towards reaching Net Zero targets and NDCs, but also for social and economic benefits. There is a need to pioritise watershed class 1,2 and ensure a conversion away from monoculture agriculture.