Chay Chhun Eng is in many respects just your typical Cambodian farmer tending his 1ha black pepper plantation in Putaing village of Pou Chrei commune in Mondulkiri province’s Pech Chreada district, watching over his crops as they grow until the time comes to harvest them.
But if you take a look at his plantation you’ll see an unusual sight: There is an orderly forest there with a three metre trees growing next to each of his pepper vines.
The one-and-a-half-year-old frywood trees (species name Albizia lebbeck) were grown by Chhun Eng to replace the wooden stakes that pepper vines are usually supported by. This combination of tree and vine are living pepper pillars and more simply called “living stakes”.
“I find this new method to be beneficial. We have living trees used as support trellises so that we don’t have to go to into the forest and cut trees down to make stakes. And the leaves and branches of our trees provide shade and soil coverage to preserve humidity,” said Chhun Eng.
Chhun Eng said he started to experiment with this method by planting 500 frywoods in 2019. He learned this new method through a project sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-Cambodia).
The organisation wants to encourage use of this method to replace the traditional method of sawing trees down to create vine stakes because that results in deforestation and wildlife habitat loss, whereas this method saves the natural trees and encourages the planting of new trees instead.
WWF recommended that Chhun Eng use frywood trees because the species used must be one that grows straight upward, has small leaves to let some of the sunshine in and taproots to avoid absorbing fertiliser meant for the pepper vines.
Hing Sampho, Project Manager at WWF-Cambodia, says that “we have three ways to replace the traditional supports. We can plant frywoods next to pepper vines and then transfer them to the living trellis when the trees grow to the size of a wrist or about one and a half years old.
“Or we can plant frywoods at the same time as pepper vines by using makeshift stakes to support the vines and removing them later. We can also use bamboo. That takes about one or one and a half years and then the trees take over.
“Another choice is to plant frywoods between six months and one year ahead of time and then start the pepper vines once they are big enough.
“But this wastes the farmers’ time because they have to wait six months or even up to a year to get going with their pepper crop. The best way is growing both plants at the same time,” he says.
Sampho said farmers can choose to limit the height of their trees to 3.5m or 4m by pruning at the top. Then they can let the branches grow wide and prune as needed during rainy season.
Replacing the use of dead trees by planting living ones is a clever strategy to combat deforestation and one that is in total agreement with Ministry of Environment policy according to Neth Pheaktra, spokesman for the ministry.
“The living pepper vine stakes solution is a good alternative to deforestation. The Ministry encourages and supports the planting of trees wherever possible and we’d like to see more companies find ways to do business without damaging the natural environment,” Pheaktra says while speaking to journalists at Chhun Eng’s pepper plantation.
“According to our research, the use of lumber and sheets of wood by the construction industry in Cambodia amounts to approximately two million cubic metres of wood each year.
“Something has to be done to reduce the pressure industry is placing on the forests and this is one method that can help do that, but it’s far from a complete solution to the problem,” he says.
Pheaktra also raised the question of where timber in Cambodia would come from other than the natural forests since there are no tree farms here that can provide a sufficient supply of wood suitable for construction, which is a problem that he feels needs to be addressed soon.
“The world is now changing. Investments in tree plantations can minimise the pressure on natural trees. In Cambodia, there are some companies investing in tree plantations such as paper trees or eucalyptus trees. And acacia trees – those can be harvested in just five years.
“But we will need more investments in this sector in order to stop deforestation of wilderness areas,” he says.
WWF isn’t traditionally considered an agricultural NGO, but given the impact that farming has on wildlife habitat through deforestation around the world they’ve expanded their expertise into this area over the years.
“Farming such as black pepper plantations are a part of deforestation because our research indicates that 1ha of black pepper vines needs 1,700 wooden stakes,” said Seng Teak, Director of WWF-Cambodia.
“If the stakes are made from the trees in a mixed deciduous forest, obtaining those 1,700 stakes requires cutting down the equivalent of 7ha of forest. So we had to find a way to allow the farmer’s livelihood to continue but without cutting any trees down,” he says.
Sampho demonstrated the process of how to transfer pepper vines from old to new stakes. The lower half of the vines are pruned and buried in the ground and the upper half is left exposed and is wrapped around the frywood tree.
The living pepper pillar is a newly arrived innovation for Cambodia and is only being practiced by 70 farmers here in 2020.
Even if it were possible, shifting every farmer at once would affect the national harvested yield of black pepper seeds disastrously in the first year so the transition must be accomplished gradually anyways to avoid market chaos.
“When we shift the vines to the trees, for the first year output drops by up to about 50 per cent. But then the next season yields are higher than ever before,” says Sampho.
Sampho remarks that there were some farmers who tried to use the living pepper pillar method on their own but they failed because they didn’t do it correctly. For example, they often used the wrong kind of trees.
“We have consulted experts from Vietnam who have already succeeded with this method and we invited them to conduct training sessions on how to use the frywood’s leaves for animal food. One hectare of living stakes produces enough leaves to support 25 goats.
“This is extra income and then the goat’s manure can be used as fertiliser to grow the next crop of vines,” he says.
When the frywood trees grow bigger these living stakes also turn into a potential product that can provide additional profit for the farmer.
“After about 30 years, if farmers decide to stop their black pepper harvest and remove the crops to start new plants, the frywood trees can be turned into nice furniture – particularly solid wooden round stools.
“So it’s like purchasing a long-term bond that can be cashed out with added interest for a nice profit after 30 years,” Sampho says.
Teak says that the WWF’s living stake project is a simple tool to balance the needs of black pepper farmers with the preservation of natural habitat.
He mentions that the WWF is not just in Cambodia – it is a global organisation with branches in nearly 100 countries and it is always looking for new ideas that will allow humans and wildlife to continue to co-exist.
“Today WWF-Cambodia is implementing the living stake project with 70 families in 2020 and we’re set to add another 60 families in 2021 for those who are interested,” says Teak.
With this innovative approach to halting deforestation – one that offers a practical solution to people who otherwise must cut down trees to make their living – WWF-Cambodia has received congratulations and encouragement from government officials, environmental activists and farmers alike.
“We should all give thanks to WWF for bringing this technique to Cambodia’s farmers and we hope that they will extend this project and others like it to every province,” said Pheaktra.