Interview: Cultivation of energy crops in Viet Nam

Green plants on open pit bauxite mine

Acacia on open pit bauxite mine; Photo: Brömme, CPEP

Dr Michael Zschiesche is the Chairman of the Independent Institute for Environmental Issues and the head of the ‘Energy crops on post-mining sites in Viet Nam - CPEP’ project supported by IKI. The project aims to demonstrate the conditions under which it is possible to cultivate energy crops on contaminated mining sites in Viet Nam. The project draws on a feasibility study that has already shown the potential for cultivation activities.

An energy crop is a renewable resource that is grown solely for its energy Dr Michael Zschieschepotential. Energy crops can be produced in a sustainable manner as biomass and therefore conserve fossil fuels. As a result, they reduce the dependency on energy imports (oil, natural gas) and contribute to strengthening rural areas.
In the case of Viet Nam, activities are being undertaken on contaminated mining sites as well as areas that were polluted during the war, so the restoration of degraded areas also plays a role in these efforts.

What lessons have already been learned about energy crops in the Vietnamese context, what are their advantages and disadvantages, and what are their uses?

In Viet Nam, we are still right at the beginning when it comes to energy crops. Of course there are a handful of pilot projects, including ours, but the topic is not yet known, for instance, among the farmers of Viet Nam. Information about the benefits of energy crops also still needs to be provided to the decision-makers in ministries as well as the provinces. But when one provides this information, there is lots of interest. That’s the way it usually is in Viet Nam. The country is in a state of change and lots can be accomplished with good ideas. In Viet Nam, we are currently experiencing a high degree of readiness across all levels to cooperate on energy crops and pioneer their use.

What connection do you see between growing energy crops and climate change?

Everyone agrees that growing energy crops brings positive impacts for the climate. But the effectiveness with regard to positive climate impacts is heavily dependent on the species of plant, its utilisation, and the local conditions, just to list three major factors. I think it would be a success if, after the project concludes, more people in Viet Nam connect the cultivation of energy crops with climate change. And if this were also to feed into awareness among decision-makers for more concrete action on climate change mitigation.

Sorghum on open pit coal mine

What is the starting point for your project?

According to Vietnamese authorities, there are currently around 4,000 mining sites in Viet Nam. In addition, there are also many areas that have already been abandoned. In many cases, these are logistically well-connected. Viet Nam’s mining law amendment now provides for the restoration of such abandoned areas. But there is still too little experience in Viet Nam on such issues. The Vietnam Environmental Agency, which is responsible for these activities, is currently also learning a huge amount on this subject. We also want to provide a service in this regard with the pilot project and demonstrate that it is possible to carry out restoration activities that in the best case scenario are also economically profitable and beneficial for the climate. And whenever possible, the people living around the mining sites should directly benefit from these activities. 

What impacts do you hope to have with the project? Have initial results already become apparent?

We – both Vietnamese and German experts – have started working very enthusiastically this year at three model sites, including two in northern Viet Nam and one in southern Viet Nam. Adapted cultivation systems have been developed and the first harvests have now been collected. We have also already withstood the first heavy rains in Thai Nguyen Province. It can certainly be said that we have been able to show the benefits of further developing certain native energy crops. These include, for example, sweet sorghum. But we are also testing Vietnamese grasses as well as sunflowers and cashew nuts.

Farmers harvesting and transporting sorghum

How can your project have an impact that extends across the region as a pilot project?

One way is certainly through the Vietnamese stakeholders having a positive impression of the project and then reporting on it within their regional contexts. For instance, in November 2016 the Vietnamese Energy Agency held a colloquium in Hanoi that dealt specifically with energy crops. We were asked to provide an overview of the CPEP project. In addition, we will make use of other opportunities in South-East Asia to raise awareness about the approach and the project’s initial results. We believe that the idea of defusing the conflict between growing crops for nutrition and for energy will be viewed positively by all countries in the region. At the same time, all of the countries in the region want to modernise and further develop their agricultural and energy potential. 

State Secretary Gunther Adler of the German Environment Ministry will pay a visit to the project during his trip to Viet Nam in November 2016. Currently, a Vietnamese scholar from the IKI project ‘International climate protection scholarships for young management professionals from developing and emerging countries’ is also working with UFU on this issue. The scholarship programme is being implemented by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.