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The development of sustainable cropping systems in the highlands of South-East Asia: general lessons for development projectsSoil conservation in the highlands of South-East Asia is essential for sustainable agro-environmental development. The effectiveness of soil conservation treatments developed in runoff plots was investigated in farmer-managed plots on a natural catchment. This was achieved by the development and scientific evaluation of modified and novel cropping practices in a representative highland catchment in Yunnan Province, China. Wang Jia Catchment covers 40.1 hectares near Kedu, in Xundian County, north-east Yunnan (25o28'N, 102o53'E). The initial project consisted of an evaluation of the effects of modified cropping practices on maize productivity and soil properties. This programme was extended to investigate ways of increasing the productivity of maize, wheat and soybean on fragile slopes in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way. The approach incorporates modified and novel agronomic and soil conservation measures, with the evaluation of their agricultural, environmental and socio-economic impacts using multidisciplinary approaches. This European Union funded project involved an international research team from Belgium, China, Ireland, Thailand and the U.K. Five co-ordinated work packages were implemented. Involving: (1) Background agricultural and environmental assessment of Wang Jia Catchment. (2) Implementation and evaluation of modified and novel cropping systems for wheat, maize and soybean in the catchment. (3) Cost-benefit analyses of the socio-economic impacts of the changed cropping practices. (4) Comparative scientific evaluation of the cropping techniques in the highlands of northern Thailand. (5) Dissemination of project outcomes and establishment of training programmes for best practice in highland rural development. The lessons of the Project for promoting sustainable agro-environmental development in tropical and subtropical highlands include: (1) Recognizing the importance of both ‘north-south’ and ‘south-south’ co-operation in development projects, (2) Integrating local people as full partners in the research programme, (3) Matching the different ‘time horizons’ of the different stakeholders and (4) Developing multidisciplinary teams, including biophysical scientists and socio-economists.