Mar 19, 2007

Slash and Burn Baby Burn


I keep reading in the Bangkok post and also on the net of all the smoke caused by slash and burn agriculture and how it is causing such widespread havoc across South East Asia. It’s the dry season. I even rode through burnt air on recent travels in Luang Prabang province as well as a long bus ride in Thailand. The whole country seemed to be lit up from Chang Rai all the way to Loei.

I never thought very much about it. Yes, terrible stuff, but necessary, people have to eat, and so on. Then I read the piece which I’ll cut and paste at the bottom with a link to the blog it comes from. The blog is written by a Canadian aid worker, Patrick, who just finished working in Oudomxai province northern Laos. Patrick questioned a few of the ways we look at swiden agriculture, and in doing so he lent credence to a few of the doubts I’d been harboring in my own mind.

Burning the Fields

I had a close look at true slash and burn agriculture on the walks I did over the past four months. Most of the villages I visited were still traditional in their agricultural practices. They hadn’t yet made the move down to the valley or road as they have many places. Of course I was seeing things as an untrained observer, and in only a few villages, and one must keep that in mind. Then again most foreign “experts” never even leave Vientiane and most definitely never see a village that isn’t on a road

One thing all the traditional villages I saw had in common was a lot of big trees. I understood why there are big trees in the immediate vicinity of an Akha village. They believe in all that spirit stuff and they have to have big trees close by. Even out where crops were growing there also seemed to be a lot of old growth close by. The fields themselves were of course rice, and old rice fields were grown over with bamboo, but mostly the hills are covered with old trees. The amount of land actually involved in the swiden agriculture seemed tiny.

Small patchwork fields some being farmed others lying fallow stretching along the ridge all the way to the horizon. Phongsali

I am aware that old rice fields look like jungle to the casual glance, that’s why I specify old growth forest to differentiate. A three foot thick tree is old.

In February I saw the slashing going on and the fires it created. Slashing in preparation to burning is a lot of work. It involves swinging a machete all day long. I only saw trees being slashed on previously farmed land. Typically the land would have lain fallow for along time then cut so it would dry, then lit up. It seemed as if the same land were being used over and over again but after many years. No old growth. The bamboo and other trees were over forty feet tall and when cut would lay in huge piles ten feet thick. The resembled a game of pickup sticks played by giants.

The tricky part was that for communities still living in old forests, without the slash, there is no burn. That’s why they slash. What’s missing from all the current complaints about all the burning is the slash. I try to imagine how many hill tribes are still using slash and burn cultivation, compared to how much mountain is burning. Something doesn’t add up.

Then I think about the hills I saw burning on my long bus rides. Not the raging big infernos of brush twenty feet thick, but the slow creeping fires of already burnt ground or even more often the leaves and small grasses that grow beneath the low thin forest that is all that remains in Thailand.

Furrows from a plough, then newly burnt land, and then rubber trees

Most fires I saw on my travels seemed not to be of the intentional controlled burn types. Not the huge fires lit amongst big trees by hill tribes, but more of the “got loose and who cares” variety. Of course they could never burn in old growth forests. Old growth might go dormant in the dry season but it doesn’t dry out enough to burn. That’s why the hill tribe people have to slash.

When I started to write this piece earlier this evening the neighbor on our south was burning a pile of leaves and brush in his back yard. Flames fifteen feet high. It’s no big deal, everyone burns the trash out of their yards this time of year. When we temporarily moved in here a couple of weeks ago the first thing my wife did was to sweep up all the leaves, and start a big fire. Directly behind us they cleared all the brush out from under some trees and burnt it. All across Asia people are burning the underbrush, it’s how people keep things neat and tidy. In a couple of years it all grows back. Of course the farmers burn too. Not the slash and burn farmers but regular wet rice folks. Often the fires get away from people and are allowed to burn. That’s what I saw all across Thailand, not slash and burn. I look for the environmental criminals and they are us.

Khamu man rip cutting with an up and down saw, notice the rice stalks behind him

In Luang Prabang province I saw fires covering tens of hectares of open hillside at once. At the time I thought it a funny way to grow rice. I had never seen hill tribe fields that large, more often patchwork with pieces of old fields in between. The fields along the road to Luang Prabang weren’t even brushy, it’s as if they had been burnt within a couple of years recently. I wonder if these were even fires to plant rice or just fires out of control.

I’ve heard there is a minimum number of years for a land to lie fallow. This allows for the soil and nutrients to renew themselves. Probably the hill tribes have some sort of taboo about planting on land that doesn’t contain certain species. My guide on my last trek could tell in an instant how many years it had been since an area had been used for rice. Partially by the size of the trees, also by the species. Certain plants grow on old fields after one year, others on the second and so forth. Some species even need the shade of preceding species to establish themselves.

Root Flare

Patrick’s writings made me aware of another type of burning for cultivation. The intensive burn and reburn that occurs when hill tribes are located to permanent settlements in the lowlands or along roads. I saw one of these new settlements recently and I also saw my first examples of new fields being planted where once there were old forests.

When I thought about it I realized these fields were the first I had seen alongside flowing water. Seemed like before they had always been either on the tops of ridges or along the slopes leading down from them. Was there some kind of reason that hill tribes don’t traditionally plant along stream beds?

Hand cut planks on burnt and planted land

A couple days later I am awake in the middle of the night because I heard the rain on the roof. The water comes down hard for a long time. It hasn’t rained like this for five months. The water puddles on the ground. The birds sing even though it’s the middle of the night. Soon the dry season will be over. The fires will be out, for this year, tourists will be happily taking the same landscape photos, residents will stop coughing, and the issue will be out of the papers for another year.

The forests of Laos will continue to be cut, if not for timber then to make way for rubber trees. Thailand will continue to industrialize oblivious to the green wet forested country it used to be.

New Rice

Patrick Lucas' Blog

Shifting Perspectives Part 1
Earlier in this blog I made two remarks that I would like to remention for the subsequent essays:

Shifting Perspectives on Shifting Cultivation 1.

I have come to believe the only time you really know you’re learning something is when you realize everything you thought you knew on a given topic turns out to be almost completely wrong. This point has become a major thread and theme to my entire experience here in Lao, and is even more poignant when put up against my evolving knowledge and understanding with regard to Shifting Cultivation.2. A few months back, when writing about resettlement of upland villages, I quoted the first of two “development riddles”. The first was: When is a solution not a solution? The second “development riddle” that I did not mention or examine the last time is: Riddle No. 2: When is a problem not a problem? The issues of shifting cultivation in Lao has made me realize how little I knew or understood about this complex issue, and has caused my views and opinions to change drastically. Also it has provided me with a new level of understanding of the answers to these two riddles. With this series of essays I would like to take anyone willing to read it, on a short journey explaining my experiences and shifting perspectives on shifting cultivation in Lao.Shifting Perspectives on Shifting CultivationWhen I first arrived in Lao I had never actually heard the term “shifting cultivation”. In fact, as I was learn during my tenure in Oudomxay, there are a number of different terms and references to this highly controversial form of agriculture, including: swidden agriculture, shifting cultivation, rotating cultivation, pioneering cultivation, and the most famous of all, SLASH AND BURN! Or “hai na” in Lao. I suspect, as was the case for me, this last term is the most common and well known reference, and is one that conjures the most drastic images of environmental destruction and un-sustainability. The phrase “slash and burn” is a highly politically charged term that is often intended to convey precisely this kind of image, portraying the people who are practicing it as environmental criminals, backward, unsustainable, and requiring development assistance and programs designed to halt the practice and move people into the development light of economic and environmental security. This has certainly been the case in Lao as the government and numerous aide agencies have embarked on a number of development and planning initiatives to eradicate the practice and introduce alternatives and to create seemingly more sustainable methods for upland communities. I remember when I first arrived traveling with my colleagues around Oudomxay province and seeing areas that matched the image in my head of slash and burn cultivation: steep slopes, denuded of all trees and vegetation that were then burned in giant fires that fill the air with dense clouds of smoke and ash that fall in huge black flakes like some form of Buponic snow, a third world nuclear holocaust. My colleagues would point out areas on the hillsides along roads and highways that were cleared of bush and burnt and would say things like, “Hai na, maen bo di ti singwaetlom—slash and burn, is very bad for the environment!” In my state of ignorance, I would simply nod my head in agreement, “yes, very bad.” As with so many things however, I would soon learn that the issue is far more subtle and complex than such a simple understanding could ever possibly capture. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is this simple image and understanding of a very complex and very old relationship the people have with the land that dominates government policy, international development initiatives, and the international mass media. I can remember reading in the most respectable of media outlets descriptions that profile upland ethnic minorities in a negative stereotype of environmental marauders, slashing and burning the forest, farming the land for a few years until it is denuded of nutrients and productivity, and then moving on, leaving a path of irreversible destruction in their wake. As I have learned over the past 22 months in Oudomxay, this image, and the activities undertaken by the government and the international aid community, are largely mislead, and fit perfectly within the two “development riddles” I have mentioned earlier.So what exactly is “Slash and burn agriculture” and all these other terms anyways? Simply stated, slash and burn refers to the practice of clearing an area of forest, typically in an upland area of steep slopes, and then burning the brush and vegetation for cultivation. Most often, in Lao, the people will plant a strain of rice suitable for dry conditions, but have also been known to plant various types of fruit trees and vegetables. Usually after one or two growing seasons, the field is then “abandoned”. Most upland ethnic groups, such as the Khmu people in Oudomxay Province, will farm an area for up to twenty years, shifting their fields from cultivation to fallow, until the soil fertility and productivity drops, and then move the entire village to a new area to begin the cycle over again. It is usually at this point that the understanding of these practices end and the claims of environmental destruction and un-sustainability begin. The argument against this form of agriculture revolves around the issues of soil erosion, sedimentation (the deposit of soil in local streams and rivers due to erosion), reductions in soil fertility due to over cultivation, and productivity losses. The fear is that once an area has been cleared on a steep slope, the likelihood of soil erosion and sedimentation in local streams is much greater, and in a time of quickly growing populations (Lao has the highest population growth rates in South East Asia), this form of agriculture is destructive and un-sustainable in the long term. And, on many levels, these claims are quite legitimate. That is if we were simply discussing a situation in which the images of slash and burn were accurate, however, as I have come to believe, this is a gross oversimplification and betrays a long term relationship and an in-depth and complex level of ecological knowledge the people have of the land. Shifting Cultivation obviously goes beyond this. Simply put, shifting cultivation, or swidden agriculture, refers to the practice of clearing and burning forests of land, using the land for a season or two, and then allowing to go fallow, letting the forest re-grow for up 7 to 12 years before being burnt and cultivated again. The field is hardly abandoned however. Fallow areas are continuously used by the ethnic upland people, such as the Khmu, as a source of resources, including wildlife for consumption, and a plethora of non-timber forest products such as traditional medicines, various plants for building products and food, as well as spiritual beliefs. (It should be noted that Lao is known for having the highest biodiversity values in south east asia along with the highest diversity and abundance of non-timber forest products, which are quickly growing in demand and market value—all due to 400 600 years of shifting cultivation!.) From my understanding, the Khmu people, like the Inuit of the north with regard to having over 26 words for snow, have numerous words for describing the forests in different stages of re-growth commensurate with the products and wildlife that can be found within them. In fact, I suspect that if the value taken from fallow areas and secondary forest were taken into consideration, the perceptions around shifting cultivation would change drastically. As such, many agronomists and environmental planners throughout the developing world are beginning to understand that shifting cultivation is not only one of the most efficient forms of agriculture (the amount of energy spent compared to calories derived ratio is quite high—translation, lots of work but lots of food), it can also be very environmentally beneficial. Many cultivators have highly sophisticated forms of soil conservation, and shifting cultivation provides fallow areas that are high in biodiversity and abundance that are crucial not only to farmers and communities, but with respect to wildlife habitat as well. With respect to ecology and environmental degradation, the only thing that really matters is the rate at which something occurs. The ecology of Lao, over the last 400 to 600 years has adapted well to this form of land use, and the changes that are being implemented are causes rapid changes the balance and environmental dynamics that rule this fragile environment. As I have learned, it is these changes that are proving to be the real cause of environmental degradation and social disruption in the country.Pioneering Cultivation is an entirely different story. This refers to what happens when people have restricted access to land, and are forced to move into areas that were previously untouched primary forest, usually in very fragile environments (head water areas for major rivers and tributaries with steep slopes and soils with already low nutrient levels and highly susceptible to erosion and sedimentation) and begin practicing slash and burn practices. Since these areas are typically protected against cultivation, the people engaging in the practice are understandably concerned about getting caught and unlikely to invest in soil conservation practices. Also, since they rarely own this land, and will be forced to move on, the fallow periods typically shorten between cropping years—from 7 to 12 years—to continuous intense cultivation for 3 to 5 subsequent years in a row. In short, the forest is not allowed to grow back and the farmers keep growing crops until the soil nutrients are almost completely denuded and then leave the land. The result is severe degradation and soil loss. This is the type of slash and burn that fits the actual environmental stereotypes and should be rightly addressed. Ironically, the very policies and programs aimed at all shifting cultivation is resulting in the very restrictions in access to land and is resulting in an alarming rate of growth of pioneering cultivation throughout Laos and the developing world generally.This brings us back to the first development riddle: Riddle No. 1—when is a solution not a solution? Answer No. 1: When it causes more problems than it solves. By attempting to eradicate shifting cultivation without understanding it, Lao has found itself in the uncomfortable position where the very practices and environmental problems they had hoped to address are in reality becoming in more exacerbated. Answer No. 2: when it is not adopted by the intended beneficiaries. Like so many development initiatives, based on misleading or misguided ideals and initiatives, without consideration for the needs and local realities of the people for whom they are intended to “develop”, the programs to eradicate shifting cultivation have not provided upland communities with viable alternatives, meaning that they have no choice but to continue cultivating upland areas, and with restricted access to land, they have begun to engage in land use patterns that are truly destructive and un-sustainable.

Shifting Perspectives Continued...
One night, while dining over “sin-daat” (a form of Lao BBQ) with a colleague, we were discussing this very situation when my friend asked me a simple, yet poignant question, “How is it that a form of agriculture such as the shifting cultivation, which has practiced by the Khmu people in this area for the last 400 to 600 years, was suddenly deemed un-sustainable?” Of course, as usual, I had no answer. I knew one thing for certain: I needed to find out. For me this was the starting point when my perspectives and understanding of upland agriculture began to shift.Shifting Cultivation in Laos-traditional and current circumstancesShifting cultivation, as it has been traditionally practiced by the Khmu, and other ethnic groups in the north of Lao, is far more complicated than the simple images portrayed by slash and burn. Firstly, it is important to understand why upland agriculture is necessary to begin with. Oudomxay, like the rest of the country, is a highly mountainous area, comprising around 80% of the total land area. The geography is characterized by steep sloops, rugged terrain, and very little lowlands and flood plains. The fact of the matter is that Oudomxay has very few options or viable alternatives to cultivating upland areas. Even if they cultivated every square inch of lowland areas for rice paddies (they would have to get rid of all the towns, roads, etc to do so) and managed to raise production levels by 20% or more, they would still be faced with rice shortages to meet the demands of a growing population. This means that upland cultivation, in one form or another, will remain apart of the agricultural landscape, and a crucial aspect of the people’s livelihood strategies for some time to come. The fact that shifting cultivation has been stigmatized and associated with poverty and “backwardness” is a classic example of what has come to be called environmental racism: the placement of blame for environmental degradation on often marginalized ethnic minorities. There is a danger of course of oversimplifying or romanticizing the lives of shifting cultivators. Upland agriculture, though an effective livelihood strategy, is a difficult one. I once asked the Phorban (village chief) in Ban Tangnuey if he felt the village was better off living in the valley bottom doing sedentary agriculture as opposed to their traditional lifestyle in the nearby hills. He answered that yes, he did feel the village was better off. Why? Because living on a hill is difficult he replied. The fact is that many of the villages I have visited and worked in usually expressed a willingness to move away from shifting cultivation if provided the opportunity. They would like to practice different forms of agriculture; they would like access to schools, hospitals and infrastructure. The question is how the programs are carried out and what their true intentions are. I have come to suspect that the efforts to eradicate shifting cultivation have less to do with “improving” the people’s lives than getting them out of areas that are rich in other resource values such as timber, mining, and cash crop plantations. This leads us to another key point, that even if shifting cultivation was recognized as a viable form of agriculture, the fact is the Khmu people live in a very different socio-economic environment than they did in the past. There is a much higher degree of competition over land uses. Shifting cultivation, as practiced in the past, meant that people had to move around every 20 years or so…this may not be possible with a growing population and demand for cash crops and resources. Seeking out the Environmental CulpritsSo, if shifting cultivation isn’t the cause of all the environmental degradation, what is?Well, let’s first clarify that there isn’t one single cause of environmental degradation. Secondly, it’s important also to clarify specifically what environmental degradation are we speaking of. My research with the Oudomxay Provincial Science Technology & Environment Office in the Ko River watershed, along with a growing body of secondary research being conducted by numerous domestic and international research institutes, has provided a fairly comprehensive picture of the state of the environment with respect to watershed functions and services. (Please see the inserted graph.)As I stated before the only thing that matters in ecology is the rate at which something occurs and the timeframe in which it occurs. Shifting cultivation, as practiced in the past, with long fallow periods, has been shown to be either environmentally benign, or even beneficial. Currently however, the state of shifting cultivation is rapidly changing due to changes in land use policy, as discussed earlier there are much shorter fallow periods and increasing intensity in the use of land in increasingly fragile environments. One could accurately describe this form of agriculture as “pioneering” cultivation and it is a major source and cause of soil erosion, sedimentation, deforestation, and storm water runoff; a major source of environmental degradation in the province. It is not the only culprit however. A growing consensus among agronomist, planners, and development workers and agencies, is that the most significant cause of environmental degradation in Oudomxay and Lao generally is the issue of land use change, the growing rate of conversion of forest and agricultural land to large monoculture cash crop plantations, particularly rubber. Throughout Oudomxay province we are seeing larger and larger areas of land being cleared and planted with massive plantations of rubber. The large majority of the investors come from China and they have very little interest in conserving the land for the long term. Quite often, the land is given away in concessions to investors, land that typically belonged to villagers—the land taken away and given to the investors without consultation or even the knowledge of the farmers. These plantations have incredibly high erosion and run off rates, and typically can leave the soil denuded and useless for many years afterwards. Other land uses that can prove damaging to watershed services include stripping the vegetation along rivers and streams to grow corn and other crops, and the destruction of and loss of wetlands and floodplains. Once you put all these issues together you are looking at a very severe degree of environmental degradation. Quite obviously the issue is very complicated and defies any simple explanation or solution.
Finally, this brings us to the second Development Riddle, which is: When is a problem not a problem? Answer: When it is part of the solution. Understanding a social system is not unlike looking at a computer drafted 3 dimensional picture. You may remember these were all the rage about ten years back. At first glance they appeared non-sensical, chaotic, a meaningless mess of objects and patterns. But, if you look long enough, and adjust your perception or perspective accordingly, an image will emerge. Understanding shifting cultivation within the contemporary context of Lao is a very similar process. Once you look past the smoke and the fires, the charred and burnt fields and trees left behind, you can begin to see it in a very different light. Rather than being backward and primitive, shifting cultivators have developed highly in-depth agro-ecological knowledge and management systems that have resulted in Lao having some of the highest biodiversity levels in south east Asia, an incredible genetic heritage of rice species perfectly suited to the local growing conditions and environments, not too mention a huge abundance and diversity of non-timber forest products, all of which make a substantial argument that shifting cultivation can be sustainable. The government of Lao, and all actors and stakeholders should appreciate this as highly valuable asset that is quickly being lost, not as a threat. For too long, shifting cultivators have been blamed for environmental degradation and have been resettled and made to alter their livelihood strategies regardless of whether there were adequate or viable alternatives or whether the promised services and infrastructure could be provided. The underlying assumptions have been that shifting cultivators are invariably poor and therefore any move to improve their lives will inevitably result in greater prosperity. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. These assumptions ignore the vast natural wealth that many indigenous communities possess within their traditional environs. Moved into new communities, cut off from traditional land use practices, provided inadequate land with little training or extension workers and credit, many families and whole communities are falling into new poverty cycles that are difficult to reverse or escape. All of which is leading to higher levels of environmental degradation. Obviously, this cycle must end and development and government agencies need to start looking at shifting cultivation in a new light.Back in the day, while fighting their “Secret War” in Lao, the CIA had a saying, “If you think you understand the situation, you simply don’t have all the facts!” The fact is that Lao, like any country or culture anywhere in the world I suppose, is far more complicated and dynamic than even a 3D picture. Anytime you think you are starting to figure things out, some little fact jumps out and shatters everything you built. I won’t presume to truly understanding the entire situation as there is no way that I could ever have all the facts. But I have identified a few important facts that can guide future action.1. Shifting cultivation, if done properly with traditional or effective contemporary soil erosion methods, and sufficiently long fallow periods, can be not only environmentally benign, but beneficial by encouraging new growth and higher biodiversity.2. Shifting Cultivators do not deserve the stigma or stereotype of being either backwards or poor if they are successfully practicing their traditional methods. (Successful in my opinion, for this circumstance, being that they are meeting the requirements of the first point, while supplying all the nutritional and material needs they require for sustainable economic and social security.) Shifting Cultivators possess in-depth agro-ecological knowledge that, while it should not replace solid scientific knowledge and research, it should be respected and viewed as an asset.3. Shifting Cultivation does not equal environmental degradation—so long as it meets the requirements of the first two points. There are other sources of degradation that must be addressed together, including: pioneering cultivation, deforestation, large rubber plantations, intensifying agriculture in the low lands, all of which result in soil erosion and sedimentation, and drastic changes in the hydrological regimes of watersheds (ie. Flooding, droughts, etc.)So where does all this leave us?It’s one thing to say that the government, NGOs, and development agencies should stop demonizing shifting cultivation and view it as an asset: a major barrier that must be crossed, but what are they supposed to do then? Seems to me to there are plenty of people around doing this first part, but I have yet to see any concrete actions plans, strategies or criteria for planners to work with to actually start integrating in a sound manner into the contemporary planning process and agricultural landscape. All of this assuming of course that shifting cultivators want to keep practicing shifting cultivation. As always, it’s easy to criticize and point out mistakes, it’s a completely different situation altogether to come up with feasible and practical solutions. This is the next step and the entry point for planners, such as myself, have to step up to the plate.Fortunately, there are some people and agencies who are working on this issue, and within my limited time and experience in Lao I have begun to gather some ideas to approach this issue. Firstly, there are a few preconditions that must be met. Some of these include:There must be a recognition and understanding by all stakeholders and agencies that:a. Shifting cultivation with the appropriate fallow periods and practices is not inherently environmentally destructive or unsustainableb. That without viable and feasible alternatives and means shifting cultivators cannot be expected to change their practices and that shifting cultivation can remain a reasonable and sustainable means of sustenancec. Adequate land and low population densities conditions must exist to allow for environmentally acceptable practices. (Some have suggested areas with less than 20 persons per 1 km2, may be an acceptable population density to allow for sufficient fallow periods…assuming there are no other practices or land uses in the area…not likely for most locations.)As I said before, there is a growing awareness and consensus among planners (both Lao and foreigners) that the eradication of shifting cultivation is not only undesirable under current economic and social condition, but highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. In fact, the government of Lao has begun to change its language from a program of “eradication” to “stabilization” wherein shifting cultivators are encouraged to change, but are allowed to practice in limited areas as long as it does not encroach on current forest covered areas. Regardless, I have compiled a short list of strategies and objectives I have been encouraging people to consider throughout my tenure as project coordinator for the Nam Ko Watershed Project, these include:1. Improve Land Tenure, Land use planning & allocation. Existing land entitlements in Lao are weak and routinely ignored by government officials. It is far more likely that farmers will engage in sustainable agricultural practices if they have a more secure knowledge that they will have access to the land over a set period of time. Also, by improving upon the land use planning and allocation process, the government will be able to alleviate conflicts and deal with environmental problems more effectively.2. Improve Fallow Periods & Recognize Fallow as a legitimate form of land use.Currently, the government of Lao has a regulation in place that if a farmer does not use his land for a period of three years (ie. Allows it to go fallow), than he or she will use their land use certificate. By recognizing fallow as a form of land use, they will provide more opportunities for the regeneration of soils and harvesting of non-timber forest products.3. Implement development programs that are people centered.Many development projects have been implemented in a top-down manner focusing on broad development goals that have little to do with the needs and realities of local communities. Local residents should define and establish needs and criteria for development as well as evaluating successes. 4. Ensure provision of viable alternatives to shifting agricultureShould upland communities choose to relocate and shift from traditional agricultural practices, this should only be done when there are viable and feasible alternatives. Obviously, this is a classic “Chicken and the egg situation”. The government, and development agencies need to recognize that this process will not happen overnight and that traditional methods should not be cut off or disallowed until alternatives are firmly in place and providing for all the needs and requirements of the people that were available from traditional practices and more.As I have said, this is an extremely complicated situation, and I’m sure that within a few years time, or even in a few months, my own understanding and perspective of the situation will change and continue to evolve…or at least I hope so. I can say with some confidence that I have been learning thus far, as when I look back on what I thought to be true in the past…it was, indeed, pretty much completely wrong.


Tim said...

I really enjoyed reading your blog, particularly the slash and burn post. Insightful.

Thanks very much.

-Tim Patterson

Ken said...

I've had very much the same puzzlement, without having spent enough time in country to be at all sure. It just seems that the people I met and the work I saw in the fields looked long term, so how could their method be as destructive as normally put forward? I've only passed through on the way from Cambodia to Viet Nam, with only a few weeks in Laos, but I traveled a lot through the northern part of the country. . .what sort of project were you working on?? Ken from Seattle

Somchai said...

I'm usually in Laos as a tourist, not working on any project other than my curiosity. I used to live in Yunnan and Isaan a long time ago, and I ended up marrying a Lao schoolgirl.

I have a semester each of tree pathology, propagation, botany, identification, so I'm interested in plants and trees.

Since the time I wrote this blog post I've been reading a lot on the subject and it seems as if slash and burn or more accurately swidden agriculture (as the upland peoples have been doing for centuries is widely accepted now the most sustainable non destructive way to grow crops on the hills. Lowland Lao are harder to convince having been so successful at wet rice paddy agriculture. Lowlanders look upon swidden mountain folks as being backwards and not modern.

Judi said...

Very informative blog. We have just returned from a first visit to Laos and were surprised by the thick pall of smoke as it is not something that is mentioned much in travel writings. As I suffer from respiratory problems I found it difficult to cope with despite loving Laos. As we want to return and spend more time there, I decided to do some more intensive research before planning the next trip. Your article has given great information about not only when but why. Judi

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