Feb 21, 2008

The Dispossessed

Slash and burn or swidden agriculture is a natural part of the ecosystem of Northern Laos. It has been going on for hundreds and probably thousands of years. Besides being the most efficient and highest yielding source of food it provides forest products and wildlife habitat during the years it lies fallow. Scientists have come to appreciate the idea that when practiced as it has always been, it is actually of benefit to the balanced environment of the uplands.

A while ago I started reading an online forum that is broadly concerned with agricultural development in the Lao PDR. This sounds like rather dry fare, mostly concentrating on rice yields or chicken diseases, and yes they do cover that stuff. When you realize though that most of the people in Laos are rural, and a fairly large proportion of the rural diet consists of things not cultivated but rather collected from the forest, the topics on the forum could potentially include a lot of Laos.

I read but don’t post. The contributors seem to be technical people working on development projects in Laos, and most of their posts seem to be links to reports generated by their respective agencies or comments on those same reports. Often there are links to newspaper stories and some commentary relating the stories to actual conditions. There are perhaps a score of regular contributors and a few hundred members of the group.

The good part is that some of the reports are uncut, meaning they are as written by the people doing the particular study, before editing for political or business interests. The downside is that readers are admonished not to quote or cite a specific report. I think the information might be of interest to a much wider segment of the public than is reached by the discussion forum.

Bear in mind when reading the following that I’m a tourist and not some sort of development worker. I speak travelers Lao not Hmong, Yao, Koh or whatever. No doubt people in Laos who have a background in the various specialties involved, have informed opinions, I on the other hand just have opinions.

One striking idea that recurs, is that the forced elimination of swidden agriculture (slash and burn) and the relocation of large numbers of upland villages is often not very good for the people involved. Most in the development community have now come to that realization as well as some key administrators of the Lao PDR in Vientiane.

Abandoned Namat Mai

There’s no doubt that in the near future most upland peoples will live with electricity, phone, schools, roads and so on. The question is how that change is going to come about and what affect it will have on the peoples involved.

Many of us tourists view “hill tribe” peoples as being one dimensional and primitive, whiling away their years in an idyllic circle of life, living some sort of noble savage existence amongst the thick trees of the dripping jungle. In reality they are advanced and multidimensional. They know what a cell phone, radio, and video player are. Most have seen cars and trucks and on the video they’ve seen Bangkok.

From other viewpoints relocation might be seen as having been a stunning success. Uprooting and relocating upland villages does help some. It makes it easier for NGOs to provide health aid and food. It also makes it easier to replace traditional crops with rubber and other cash crops. Concentrating a few villages in one place along the roads makes it very easy to track opium production and to punish those who plant it.

Abandoned Jakune

Domestic production of opium by any measure has been severely reduced when compared to the days when it was legal. Unfortunately rates of suicide and alcoholism are up. Also former opium addicts are now turning to heroin.

Adding to the problems is the fact that the folks who run the country and go to the Universities and own the wealth are what’s called “Low Lum” or lowland ethnic Lao. The upland Laotians and middle elevation Laotians are called Lao Sung or Lao Tung, and actually include many different ethnicities with their own languages, culture and beliefs.

The lowland Laotians often consider the other groups to be backwards and primitive, they are in earnest in wishing to “help” the uplanders. Of course they are using their own terms to define success, and poverty. Slash and burn takes lots of land. All of those years the land lies fallow the land is not growing rice. Fortunately one thing Laos has is a lot of is hilly land.

Lao Lum, the lowlanders who run the place figure everyone should live the way they do and have an abundance of rice every year, which would be great if there were enough low wet lands for all. Unfortunately there is no bottom land left. Similarly aid workers define success as a degree in one of the social sciences and working for a development organisation. I’m not sure how an upland farmer living a life very similar to the one he has been living for 300 years would define success. Perhaps to have lots of children and for each one to memorize their lineage back fifty generations as they are wont to do.

Where this leaves the regular Akha farmer I’ve no idea. Probably as usual if we just left his destiny up to him and went about our business he’d be fine. With or without the NGOers the uplanders are entering the 21st century.

Naiban (headman) Mongla. When I hiked from Muang Long with my guide the naiban and the teenage boy caught up to us an hour up the hill out of Muang Long despite leaving twenty minutes later. We shared lunch and the ten hour hike with them, when entering Mongla my guide asked the man, "which way to the naiban's house". So to ask permision to stay in the village for the evening. The man replied "follow me, I am the naiban".

Notice his hand woven and embroydered blue cotton pants and shirt, very trad. He is the headman of the village of Mongla. Mongla lies just above the river Fa on a slight rise of land to the east. There is a ford an hour above and an hour bellow the village. During the wet season you must swim making the village somewhat cut off from all routes to the west, Muang Long, Xiengkok, and so on. I'd assume there must be a way in from below Viengphuka.

The village appeared prosperous. Children well clothed and fed. The setting is breathtakingly beautiful. The timber along the river is taboo for cutting and contains many very large old trees. It is many miles to the nearest road, perhaps twelve or fifteen in both the closest directions, and besides Jakune they are the only village in this vast expanse of woods.

I would be happy to see health care, and for some people to become literate, I would also be happy to hear that they have retained ownership of this valley instead of some rubber company. What is this little Eden worth?

Since the time I began trying to write this blog entry the argument over relocation has spilled onto the pages of the New Mandela, an online site broadly interested in South East Asian issues. The site is out of an Australian University. I am delighted. Here at last is something online I can quote and link to.

The discussion began with a critique of a report by Baird and Shoemaker on whether or not aid agencies were having a negative affect on the well being of uplanders by helping to care for people who had been resettled. They further imply that it is impossible to decide which resettlements have truly been voluntary and which have been coerced to some extent. They aren’t prone to overstating things and yet they say the whole mess is having a “devastating impact”. For anyone with an interest I urge a read. The report is well written, made to be read.

The critique on New Mandela is here. New Mandela Some of the comments are interesting and provide greater understanding.

I especially urge you to read the response here by the writers of the report all the dust up is about.
response in New Mandela The first response refers to the PPA (Participatory Poverty Assessment) from 2000 and 2006, This exhaustive nationwide study, conducted on behalf of the Asian Development Bank unambiguously quantifies the impoverishment during the time between the two studies.

Glad to see so many bright informed people working on these problems, just wish they were more optimistic.

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