Rice is the main crop grown during the rainy season, and under usual conditions, rainfall is adequate for rice production. However, if rain ceases to fall for several weeks to a month at a critical time in the rice growing cycle, yields will be significantly affected. Upland rice varieties, although adapted to a lower moisture requirement, are also affected by intermittent rains because farmers have no means of storing water in their fields.
Rice accounted for over 80 percent of agricultural land and between 73 percent and 84 percent of total agricultural output of major crops throughout the 1980s, except in 1988 and into the early 1990s. Rice paddies also yield fish in irrigation ditches in na (lowland rice fields). Production of rice more than doubled between 1974 and 1986, from fewer than 700,000 tons to 1.4 million tons; however, drought in 1987 and 1988 cut annual yields by nearly one-third, to about 1 million tons, forcing the government to rely on food aid for its domestic requirements. In 1988 and 1989, some 140,000 tons of rice were donated or sold to Laos. With improved weather and the gradual decollectivization of agriculture--an important measure under the New Economic Mechanism--rice production surged by 40 percent in 1989. The increase in production reflected the importance of the agricultural sector to the economy and was largely responsible for the economic recovery following the droughts. In 1990 production continued to increase, although at a much slower rate, and the point of self-sufficiency in rice was reached: a record 1.5 million tons. Sufficiency at a national level, however, masks considerable regional differences. The southern Mekong provinces of Khammouan, Savannakhét, and Champasak regularly produce surpluses, as do Vientiane and Oudômxai provinces, but an inadequate transportation system often makes it easier for provinces with shortages to purchase rice from Thailand or Vietnam than to purchase it from other provinces.
According to some sources, the percentage of the labor force engaged in rice production declined gradually, by over 30 percent between 1986 and 1991, a trend encouraged by the government because it tended to increase export-oriented production. However, some feared this trend would threaten sustained self-sufficiency in food, another key goal of the government. Sustained selfsufficiency however, more likely depends on a continued increase in the use of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and improved strains of rice, and on the implementation of extension and research services rather than on the actual number of workers involved in planting.
The overall increase in rice production throughout the 1980s was the result of higher productivity per hectare, rather than of an increase in the land area planted in rice; in fact, the area planted in rice decreased during the 1980s, from 732,000 hectares in 1980 to 657,000 hectares in 1990. Because farmers make little use of fertilizers or irrigation, however, most land still yielded only one annual crop in the early 1990s, despite government efforts to foster the use of double-crop rice.
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