Dec 18, 2007

Roger Arnold's Still a Secret War

I like Roger Arnold’s photos. A lot. I like this video even better.

The context in which a photo is taken is as important to me the image itself. I like to know the story behind the photo. In this case the story and the image are tied so closely together that I can’t imagine one without the other.

For myself the last chapter in the story of the Hmong and the secret war in Laos will probably be those pictures of the group of Blia Shaua Her in Roger Arnold’s photos from June in 06. The more often I look at the pictures the more I recognise the people again. Tong Fang mourning his wife. Bla Yang Fang with his old M 16 tied together with rags, then with his new UN High Commission for Refugees certificate. Most memorable of all Tong Hua Her first with his face half shot off, then after surgery in Thailand.

Read the story in Roger’s own words at
Still A Secret War by Roger Arnold

What’s not covered in his story and what we do get a taste of in the video, is who the heck is this guy Mr. Arnold anyway. Two weeks in a Hmong village hidden in the jungle? Ten trips to Laos?

The presentation in the video is extremely factual, the delivery of a journalist. Roger’s refuses to speak in hyperbole. He doesn’t sensationalize. He admonishes those who would use his photos or story for anti Lao propaganda purposes not to do so. The completely rational, sober telling of the story in the first person adds untold power to the message.

It’s as if he’s saying, This is what has happened, and this is what is happening now, it’s up to the reader, or the viewer, to try to understand.

Undoubtedly the most amazing story coming out of Laos at the moment, weaving together the threads of a narrative that begins before the war in Vietnam itself and ties in the current war on terror and the political expediency of abandoning our comrades from thirty five years ago.

Dec 7, 2007

Motorcycle Accidents

I love these outlines in the road. Somehow they seem to trace the edges of a life, well maybe a wrecked motorcycle anyway. I took this up at Xiengkok. How a motorcycle could get in an accident on this road I don't know. I mean he'd have to like run into himself, there is no traffic. I've waited on this road for hours to see anything moving at all. There was the outline of the other bike too.

On Thursday evening my nephew got sideswiped by another motorcycle, T-boned to be more exact. Ran right into him from ninety degrees. Of course maybe my nephew jumped out in front of him too but in Laos the one who does the running into is at fault. Broke his leg into pieces above the ankle. The guy driving the other motorcycle was drunk, and also had his own kid on the bike in front of him. That kid fared worse, probably crushed between the driver and the bike. You know how it is, if the kid is little you like to keep him in front of you so he doesn't fall off. I don't know how many miles I've ridden holding my oldest on with my knees while he nods off to sleep.

If you get in an accident don't go here.

They call this an international clinic but it's always been empty when I've gone. I had an infection in my jaw from an abscessed tooth and it took them 3 hours to round up a dentist. Good dentist mind you but he probably had to leave his paying practice just to treat me. Between buying the xray film and trying to find some antibiotics it took quite a while. If I'd of known I would have just gone to one of those dentists across from Dalat Sii Kahm or whatever it's called.

Ooops! another fender bender during rush hour. Everyone in Laos just leaves the bikes where they lay until the police get there and do their investigation thing. Pretty impressive I think. In Thailand when I was there the way seemed to be first you pick yourself up, then apologise, then make sure the other person is able to drive away, then you both skedaddle before the police come and start demanding money.

This is around the other side of Mahasot. Mahosot is down by the river just down from the tourist part of town and it's the only hospital I know of.

My nephew went to the place called Loi hasip Dieng. Something about the fact that it has 150 beds. His room costs 7$ a night, they think the surgery to put the plates in his leg will cost $300. The ambulance to Udon Thani would have cost $200, they can come get you right through customs. The cost there would have started at around $1000. My brother in law has never been across the border and they are more comfortable in Laos anyway. A woman I rented a house from who is a GP said the orthopedic guys are pretty practiced at putting legs together, lots of practice.

The Asian Development Bank estimated that in 05 the cost of traffic accidents cost Laos 4% of GDP. That's just about four times the rate in most of Asia. All of a sudden everyone can afford to buy a bike and get liqueured up too. Deadly combo.

Just remember if you get in an accident of any kind, as a foreigner it's your fault. Best get some of that insurance everyone carries.

Sok Dee

Jeao Kai

Big Saht, little coke, cute cooker

I always hear jeaos described as a dipping sauce, I’d say more accurately they’re a mopping up sauce, as in when you use the sticky rice to mop some up. Jeao Kai is exactly that kind of jeao. It’s dry, drier than say potato salad, but it none the less sticks to the rice well especially when smushed. (smush: to smash and mush at the same time)

Some of the ingredients, that white stuff ain't salt

I never seem to hear of people eating or making jeoa kai despite it being so easy and being made from such common ingredients. It’s another one of those dishes passed down from great grandpa Kahman, probably an improvisation from times in the Soviet Union spent without access to padek, or maybe just a Lao adaptation of an egg salad.

the greens

It’s as simple as boiling an egg.

Boil a half dozen eggs or so, cool, pulverize some hot peppers in the bottom of the coke add just a couple green onions, dent them, throw in salt, bang nua, fish sauce, then the cut up eggs, stir, then lots of mint and a little cilantro, voila.

I like it with mint on the side also and thick coffee in those cheap plastic mugs from Thailand

The Napalm Post

I was surfing YouTube looking for jet airplane videos for my 4 year old to watch. You know how it is, like a lot of four year old boys he likes pretending to sword fight and fly toy jet airplanes.

So I clicked on this one and was surprised at his reaction. Violence on movies never seems to bother him. He didn't think this video was fun at all. He was put out. "That's Laos!" he said. When I said it was probably Vietnam he said, "what's Vietnam?"

A close look at the video reveals houses and paths and fields not very different at all from Uncle Butts place out past Tat Luang.

I've seen this video before, or one very similar, probably a long time ago. I too view it differently than I might have before. No longer do I see an aircraft dropping bombs. Now I see many people burnt to death inside their houses. People and houses not very different from me and mine.

Dec 2, 2007

Two Ways To Steal Land and Timber In Laos

Strangler Fig.... First it uses the original tree for support in it's climb up to the sun, eventually it surrounds the host tree and chokes it to death.

Get healthy forests to be designated as infertile degraded land and therefore available for sale. Buy the land, cut all the timber while making a token effort to employ locals cutting and replanting, and then as soon as the timber is cut declare bankruptcy and disappear back to the country you’ve come from.

Or, again using the effort to eliminate swidden agriculture entirely by 2010, get fallow land reclassified as degraded, buy a 50 year lease and plant rubber. Bear in mind that 9 out of 10 given acres are at all times allowed to lie fallow in traditional swidden agriculture.

Oh, I forgot one more. Start a company to build a hydroelectric plant on a river, cut all the trees which grow thick and tall in bottom lands, then disappear after the trees are sold. Also known as how to turn a timber company into a hydroelectric company then into thin air.

Ban Sok Ngam on the Nam Ngam, a tributary of the Nam Ou. Is this village slated to be drowned for one of the five dams being built on the Naom Ou?

Old Growth burnt, then cut, then planted in rubber. Luang Namtha Province

The following is by Rebeca Leonard, of The Foundation for Ecological Recovery I've added the link to my sidebar.

Over the last two years, Laos has seen a dramatic increase in foreign direct investment for commercial tree plantations. The Lao Committee for Planning and Investment shows 21 projects worth US$17.3 million value were approved in 2005, which rose to 39 projects approved with a value of US$458.5 million in 2006 and by February 2007, 9 projects had been approved and 16 were pending, with a total value of US$342 million. To give a somewhat simplified overview: Chinese investors are investing in rubber plantations in the north of Laos, Vietnamese rubber companies have set up in the south of Laos and four companies are establishing pulpwood plantations in the central area (Japan's Oji Paper, Thailand's Advance Agro, India's Grasim and Sweden- Finland's Stora Enso). The reasons behind this year on year increase are complex, but a key set of government policies have been instrumental in promoting industrial tree plantations. There have been a series of national forest plans and strategies implemented since the 1989 ban on exports of processed wood and the 1991 decree to ban commercial logging.

The latest is the Lao National Forestry Strategy to the Year 2020, published in July 2005 after a 5 year process. The 2020 Strategy plans to increase “forest” cover from 40% to 70% by 2020, involving the planting of over 1 million hectares of bare land with industrial tree crops. Tree plantation businesses are exempt from land taxes and fees, and gain rights of land use for 30-50 years or longer in special economic areas.

However the roots of the plantation boom cannot be explained without a discussion of the land and forest allocation programme which has been (and remains) instrumental in making land available for commercial plantations.

Land allocation activities began in the early 1990s, and were eventually consolidated into a national programme for forest land allocation in 1996. The Land and Forest Allocation (LFA) programme was established as the primary mechanism for delineating customary village boundaries, giving villagers temporary rights to utilise forest resources, as well as land resources with a (mostly unfulfilled) promise of granting permanent rights in the later stages of its implementation.

The Land and Forest Allocation process soon became one of the major tools to achieve the target area of tree plantations. The land within the traditional village’s boundary was consolidated and reclassified to fit a new map. This new village map was designed to accommodate the current population of the village with some reserve land kept for future generations. Agricultural land was allocated according to statutory entitlements per labour unit, and the forest land was categorised according to the five forest types identified in the forest law.

While there were many progressive elements to this programme, this reorganisation and reallocation had serious impacts for the traditional communities who form 80% of the Lao population. This is because it was implemented hand in glove with the policy to stabilize and then eliminate traditional shifting cultivation by 2010.

With pressure from this ‘national goal’, unfarmed swidden fields were no longer recognised as a valid land use and they were systematically designated under the LFA process as ‘degraded forest’. In fact, this represented a stark deviation from the terms of the forestry law which states that degraded forest land is land where the forest will not regenerate naturally. Fallow land is normally just the opposite – land which has been set aside under the traditional rotational swidden farming system specifically for the purpose of regenerating the land and returning it to its natural state, which in most cases is forest.

The area classified as unstocked and degraded forestland under the LFA reached one third of the total land area, that is, vast tracts of fallow land were erased from the maps and reallocated for tree plantation development across the country.

This of course served the tree plantation companies who were keen to gain access to the fallow lands, rather than being constrained (by law) to the worst and most infertile degraded lands where no forest would regrow. In some cases companies actively influenced the classification of fertile land as degraded. The Decree formalising land and forest allocation programme allowed both Lao groups and foreigners to gain rights to forest land for tree plantation.

One such company was BGA, a New Zealand based company, whose plantation concession was later taken over by the Oji Paper company from Japan. Although there are examples of villages refusing to allow Oji to establish tree plantations on their land, in many cases plantation company staff were able to get the choicest lands by joining the land and forest allocation team at the local area and then pointing out which land should be considered “degraded” according to satellite images. Then the government officials helped the company to obtain the land from the village people.

The Lao government’s enthusiasm for tree plantations has been shown time and again to be misplaced. In far too many cases companies who applied for land for plantation simply exploited the rules, obtained healthy forested land, logged it for the plentiful and valuable timber species on the land, replanted with a sorry looking tree crop, folded up quietly and fled. Earlier this year, the government acknowledged the problems and the government declared a moratorium on new land concessions larger than 100 hectares.

By 2003, a total area of 113,000 ha of plantations had been established in the country. The area rose to 146,000 ha of plantations in 2005, with a 66% survival rate. As the Strategy 2020 itslef acknowledges, the productivity is lower than anticipated. Unfortunately the plans for improving the situation include improved tree growing technology, and larger plantations. This is likely to lead to another wave of problems for local people who have little opportunity to voice their opposition to these changes.

On a more positive note however, the latest news is that government has now taken stock of the decline in forest areas and the massive increase in land concessions handed to both foreign and domestic companies across the country. In 1982 forests covered 47 percent of land in Laos; this has now been assessed to decline to 35% of the country. The new National Land Management Authority has called a moratorium on land concessions for agriculture and tree plantation projects in order to reassess the policy and review the past projects to ensure they are in line with the law. The Laotian people will be anxious to know the results of this review.

Nam Phou San Gao (I think the "nam" reffers to the fact that there is water on the mountain "phou" rather than the name of any river.)

The Foundation for Ecological Recovery