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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Weeds: are they really undesirable?

New research shows these plants are important food for rural families

While conducting a transect walk of Khoud Khae village (Lao PDR) I noticed a woman standing in a field near us bending over to pick weeds out of a rice field. She was filling a handbag sitting at her feet that held her earlier collection of various items from the forest. She explained how her livelihood strategy consists of collecting weeds, wild food plants and other non-timber products from the forest and trading this for rice. Sometimes she would go to the temple where she begs for rice, but she tells me she is too shy to go every day. Therefore sometimes she goes to the temple in other villages. She tells me that she is a widow without any livestock and only a small paddy field, but not enough for her to live off. The forest products and weeds that are often overlooked in the fields provide just enough for her and her grandson to survive (Caitlin Corner-Dolloff).

Mrs Kam in the field, while collecting plants. Photo: Caitlin Corner-Dollhoff

As this female farmer from Lao PDR explained, for many rural households ‘wild’ edible plants, including weeds and other so-called Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP’s), provide a substantial part of the daily diet. However, many are considered weeds by most agricultural scientists, and therefore undesirable. But besides their nutritional value these plants have other uses, such as in local medicines, handicrafts and rituals.

The idea that weeds can be culturally important for farmers is a key finding of recent research conducted by Cruz-Garcia and Price (2012) in the Kalasin Province, northeast of Thailand. The growing academic interest and recognition of the importance of weeds for the survival of poor farming households is good news for gender-related research: many poor rural families depend on these wild food plants, as they’re usually collected by women. However, Cruz-Garcia and Price found that many of the same species collected by women are not only regarded as weeds to be eliminated by agronomists and rural extension services, but are also the main targets of common pesticides used in these areas.

Mrs Kam in the field, while collecting weeds. Photo: Caitlin Corner-Dollhoff

Mrs Kam in the field, while collecting weeds. Photo: Caitlin Corner-Dollhoff

The acknowledgment of weeds and other NTFP’s as highly important alternative livelihood strategies for rural women and their families, is critical for researcher working in socio-ecological systems. While these issues are often peripheral to community planning and farming initiatives, they should be considered in climate change adaptation planning, ecosystem services, and gender research projects. It’s a way of addressing equity, by targeting the realities of the poorest and most vulnerable populations.

This article is based upon previous research conducted by Dr. Gisella S Cruz-Garcia, Social Scientist at CIAT. She joined the Ecosystem Services group, part of the Decision and Policy Analysis group (DAPA) last December. The testimonial is based upon an interview conducted by Caitlin Corner-Dolloff on the 18th of August 2012, while conducting research for the Participatory Social Return on Investment (PSROI) project for CIAT with the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) in Lao PDR. She forms part of the DAPA team at CIAT and works closely together with CCAFS.

References:

  • G. Cruz García and L.L. Price (2011) Ethnobotanical investigation of ‘wild’ food plants used by rice farmers in Kalasin, Northeast Thailand. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 7:33. 2011. http://www.ethnobiomed.com/content/7/1/33/abstract
  • G. Cruz García and L.L. Price (2012) Weeds as important vegetables for farmers. Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae 81(4):397–403. http://pbsociety.org.pl/journals/index.php/asbp/article/view/1035.
  • Price, L.L. (2003) Farm women’s rights and roles in wild plant food gathering and management in North-East Thailand. In: Women and plants. Gender relations in biodiversity management and conservation. P. Howard (ed.) London & New York, Zed Books: 101-114.
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