Vetiver Systems — The Dissemination and Adoption Issue

By Dick Grimshaw

Criss Juliard in his paper "Best Practices Establishing a National Vetiver Diffusion Program" (see TVN Newsletter #21) asks the question "If Vetiver Grass Technology is so simple, inexpensive and good for the health of the soil, why isn't it promoted more broadly on a national scale in the same way vaccinations are promoted to preserve an individual's health?"

I would add "why do some farmers and engineers use the technology and others don’t.

These questions and others like them must be answered if we are to move ahead more rapidly with the application and use of Vetiver Systems as we now refer to a bundle of vetiver grass technologies.

Criss Juliard continues "The answer is not related to the attractiveness of the technology, but to the challenge of dissemination".

I agree. I would like to illustrate this challenge by some experiences — good and bad.

Thailand has done wonderful work in researching and demonstrating VS but it has not been used as widely as should be expected. Research in Thailand carried out by Suchart Montrekusol et al of the Graduate School Chiang Mai University, Thailand

Faculty of Agriculture - Extension Department, titled "Farmers' Perception and Practices in Vetiver Grass Cultivation (Vetiveria zizanioides nash) for Soil and Water Conservation in Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai Province" had the following observations and conclusions:

Most farmers applied integrated farming systems. 88% percent of the farmers accessed agricultural information through neighbors and television, while they received information on using vetiver grass for soil and water conservation from government extension workers.

Farmers' knowledge and understanding of soil conservation and soil fertility were good. Their perception and understanding of soil and water conservation using vetiver grass were also at a good level.

The problems identified included: inappropriate timing in delivery of vetiver seedlings, insufficient knowledge on vetiver grass field application, insufficient labor and equipment, and insufficient knowledge on the other uses of vetiver grass.

This research suggests that the responsible government agency should transfer more knowledge on the use of VS and its application. Extension workers should visit farmers more often to participate in solving problem.

The above confirms, as in other countries such as China, India and Indonesia, that most government extension services are not very motivated, infrequently meet with farmers, and are dependent on other arms of government to provide, in the case of VS, basic planting material to farmers. Additionally in all three countries soil conservation is the responsibility of specialized soil conservation departments who may or may not support VS, and if they do they tend to look rather narrowly at its use and applications and fail to promote all the other valuable aspects of the technology, including, moisture conservation, fertility maintenance, mulching, forage, thatch, etc. There biggest failure is the inability to manage the supply of plant material.

In contrast, in Zambia, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) - - has been working with VS in the Eastern Province. CRWRC describes its program below.

"The Government of Zambia introduced Vetiver grass to the Eastern Province of Zambia late in 1996, so to date we have had 4 growing seasons. The initial supply was managed by Agriculture Officers of the government, but one facilitator of the Reformed Church in Zambia's Planning and Development Department (RCZPDD) received 250 splits to establish a nursery where water was available. The nursery stock grew well and since that time the program has been giving vetiver splits to farmers from the nursery every year. In this specific location farmers only receive small amounts of vetiver and are responsible for propagating and replanting their own vetiver. In other areas that RCZPDD works, facilitators now network with government officers to get farmers larger amounts of around 5000 splits of vetiver.

Because the program often introduces farmers to vetiver along side several other soil stabilizing and improvement techniques, it is difficult to assess the actual amount of improved maize yield that is due to vetiver. Vetiver is introduced and supplied to farmers only when contour bunds are properly measured and earthen contour ridges (of about 6’’ high) are constructed. Often this will encourage the farmer to change their plowing and planting lines to follow the contour. While weeding farmers often pile dirt along the row of the crop creating micro contour ridges. Farmers have been very happy with these techniques and have found little to no run-off, and increased moisture retention. In the past farmers reported that after a rain fall surface moisture could be gone in 1 to 3 days. With contour bunds, contour planting and ridging, farmers have found that surface moisture will be present for 1 to 3 weeks. This has makes a big difference, early in the growing season, when the rains are irregular. Farmers have found that having vetiver on the contour bunds stabilizes them, reduces labor intensive annual maintenance, and prevents them breaching at the time of heavy rain. (Few slopes are greater then 5 degrees.) We have found that if farmers plant vetiver on their contour bunds they are more likely to continue establishing contour bunds with vetiver.

Although many more farmers have implemented contour bunds then have planted vetiver, we have found that if a farmer starts with vetiver he will be convinced of it, and will continue to plant it and will give splits to others as well. Farmers who experimented with vetiver in problem areas where erosion was a clear problem found that it takes about two years to become well established, but after that there will be little erosion and the former gullies will be filled in. One farmer had a wash out that was as deep as his leg. Now, four years latter you can't tell there was ever a problem. This farmer is convinced, and has been giving vetiver splits to fellow farmers to help them with problem areas. Farmers generally take splits from the existing band while leaving half of it there if they have no nursery. The original line will not be weakened much. Farmers have found that drought resistance (Zambia experiences 7 1/2 to 8 consecutive months with no rain) is not a problem if new splits are planted two months before the ends of the rains. Once established lack of moisture hasn't been a problem at all.

Farmers have found that vetiver does need a bit of maintenance. Some farmers like to cut it back to 50cm, which can be done quite easily with a very sharp sickle at the beginning of the rainy season. In some cases this is done to take out the dead shoots and to stimulate new growth, in other cases it is done so the farmer can plant closer to the vetiver. Some farmers also see it as necessary to clean around the base of the plants at the end of the growing season. Grass fires are a big problem in Zambia so cleaning dead growth from the base of the plants could prevent the grass fires from burning established stands. However, farmers have reported that if a row of vetiver is burnt it will grow back again. No problems were found with vetiver spreading or causing other problems. Animals were reported to eat a bit of it, which appears not to harm either plant or animal. In the event that a plant does die out farmers have waited until the next rainy season to replant.

While the idea of planting vetiver on contour bunds in Zambia is relatively new, contour bunds themselves are not. With vetiver becoming more available and with farmers understanding its potential we feel that contour bunds will become more permanent structure. In the past, with only earth structures contour bunds not only broke with excess water, but if they where not maintained for a year or two they virtually disappeared. With vetiver established on ridges, contour ridges will maintain themselves much better and become very permanent structures, encouraging other soil conservation and water retention techniques".

The above appears to be a successful introduction of VS by an NGO after a government agency had taken the first introductory steps. Note the NGO actively works to bring plant material to participating farmers and is also working with government agencies. I suspect that there is a "push-pull" syndrome at work.

Another example of NGO/community success with vetiver is LASOS in Mexico. In 1995, a small local group called Suelos Agua y Semillas de Oaxaca (SASO) found a source of vetiver grass in Chiapas (a neighboring province). SASO became an NGO called LASOS, A.C. in 1997, and with the help of the Comisión Oaxaqueña de Defensa Ecologica, started a programme for erosion control and soil restoration involving local farmers, communities, government and non-government organizations and researchers. Originally, SASO began the project with 40 plants and there are now more than 50 nurseries growing Vetiver grass throughout the state. Vetiver grass has been grown successfully in all the major soil and climate conditions of Oaxaca. Hedgerows are already beginning to form natural terraces and groups of women are cultivating vegetable gardens between the hedges. We have many other examples of this type of program, but in nearly every case success has occurred where NGOs and other agencies have worked together with farmer communities.

The CGIAR research institutes have generally not shown much interest in VS. I am not sure why (perhaps "a not invented here" problem?) and yet some individuals within these institutions have extended the technology significantly within their own area of operations. Julio Algere - the ICRAF head in Peru after visiting Kenya and seeing vetiver’s potential and took the technology to Peru, he writes:

You will not believe it but the 10 vetiver slips that I brought from Nairobi, Kenya, 5 years ago, and propagated in Yurimaguas, Peru (humid tropics) and distributed to many sites in Peru and are now used by many farmers in ecosystems from the sea level up to 4,000 m. above sea level. Most of the developments projects from the highlands (very sloping areas) are requesting the vetiveria and farmers from the tropics are supplying these material and they are getting very good economic benefits. Next phase of my research will be to combine agroforestry leguminous trees with vetiveria for double benefit, soil conservation and nutrient recycling in sloping areas of the high jungle of Peru."

The sad thing is that ICRAF headquarters in Kenya appears to take no notice of the success of their own man!

Criss Juliard, who developed a very effective vetiver program in Madagascar, summarizes what he considers the ingredients for successful VS dissemination:

"Madagascar is a best-case experience where a need to protect roads, safeguard hillsides, and improve poor agricultural soils in a particular area helped catalyze and shape a broad-based, national vetiver dissemination program. This program appears to have led to the sustainability of the technology. The Madagascar approach evolved over a three-year period and consisted of actions that a) brought interested people and organizations together committed to vetiver, b) insured reliable and timely supply of vetiver plants to end-users, and c) applied vetiver technology according to site-specific needs. The approach was low cost, involved information campaigns, used demonstration sites for practical applications, and benefited from research and applications developed in other countries. Success can be attributed in part to close relationships with the four target groups in the vetiver communications and implementation plan: a) village associations, b) private producers, c) local elected officials, and d) professional organizations, ministries and donors. Lessons learned from the Madagascar program could prove useful to practitioners hoping to establish a broad-based and sustainable vetiver program elsewhere."

Criss Juliard is highly sensitive to environmental needs and to groups working with the environment. He has a "green thumb" and is totally committed to the technology. I believe people like him can develop VS programs anywhere they work. He is a real vetiver champion just like Ed Balbarino of the Philippines, Liyu Xu of China, Alemu Mekonnen of Ethiopia, and the many other committed volunteers that have made vetiver work in communities.

In recent years the engineering sector has become more interested in VS. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Diti Hengchaovanich, a Thai CEO of a Malaysian construction company, introduced VS to highway construction (following early demonstration by P.K.Yoon) for the stabilization of steep slopes on express ways in Malaysia. Hengchaovanich initiated research to better understand the tensile strength of vetiver roots and their impact on improving the shear strength of soil. This work attracted the interest of engineers particularly in Australia and China. Demonstrations by Paul Truong in Australia showed the effectiveness of vetiver on extreme soils, and following a workshop for Chinese highway engineers, VS came alive in south China.

In South China 80% of all sediment flow is estimated to be point source from construction and mining sites. Liyu Xu, China Vetiver Network Coordinator, decided to focus his attention on the key agencies responsible for this construction, primarily highway, railroad, and municipal departments. He first focussed on highway engineers - including their bosses, and is now working with railroad engineers. This approach seems to have been successful as there are now many applications of VS being used on extreme sites in South China. In parallel, the Chinese private landscaping sector has become interested in vetiver and a number of companies are getting in to the VS business. They are learning fast, and in particular are learning that the production of large quantities of plant material is essential for a successful program, and also that quality VS application is very important.

In El Salvador a commercial company, NOBS, has been very successful in promoting VS, particularly in the highway sector. Its success is a result of committed leadership, huge plant supplies, and a technology that is low cost and very effective.

So where are we in the dissemination, promotion, adoption cycle? I think we are moving along quite well, and I believe we are about to enter a phase of an accelerated use of VS.


In conclusion the involvement by NGOs, and more lately the commercial sector has been very good for VS. NGOs generally have a comprehensive approach and supply leadership, advice and plant material to the communities that they work with. The commercial sector has profit motive as priority, and therefore will work hard to ‘market’ the technology to potential users, particularly those in the construction and engineering industries. The commercial sector will also develop large vetiver nurseries for their own needs, as well as providing a plant supply source for start up NGO operations.

Not all government vetiver initiatives have been a failure, the more successful (e.g. Malawi, Ethiopia) are those linked to comprehensive development projects that provide both the technical advice and plant material to farmers, and where government policy makers and senior field staff are convinced of VS as a solution. Stand alone extension services (such as Training & Visit system) that provide advice but no inputs have generally not been very successful (India, Indonesia and Thailand). The best vetiver programs will be those that link government agencies, NGO’s and the commercial sector with the users that they serve, backed by an initial supply of plant material and good easily accessible demonstrations.

Dick Grimshaw, Bellingham.