Mar 29, 2008

So Fa So Good

The Mekong just below Xienkok, the Nam Fa joins just out of the photo to the left

There is a steep sided valley tucked away in the mountains of Loas. It’s not on the way to anywhere. The river that flows through this valley crosses only one road far upstream and runs for 110 kilometres undisturbed until it empties into the Mekong unnoticed just below Xiengkok. Nature has also done her part to shield this valley from the covetous eyes of the modern world. Guarding both sides of the valley are steep mountains covered in thick forest, up and downstream powerful rapids make the river unavigatable by even the smallest open boat.

On the south bank of this valley on a sloped bench well above the reach of even the highest flood waters lies a tidy small village called Mongla.

Mongla..... I used the telephoto on my mini zoom to glass the town from 4km away, above Jakune. Large diptocarps rise above the canopy, tilled fields at higher elevations behind the village.

Mongla is not totally isolated. Fit and strong adults make a long one day walk to Muang Long or even Xienkok. They bring back manufactured items, such as lead for shot, fishhooks, gasoline for the generator, even tin for the roofs of the well off. But until recently the outside world had hardly made an impression on the remote valley and no one ventured in.

The Naiban of Mongla and a young boy who has been studying Laotian returning from Muang Long with fuel, a bucket, a woven mat, and some other manufactured goods. This is the ford below Jakune in the dry season. The flow is about ten cubic meters per second down by the Mekong, less than a tenth the volume of the wet season. Translation ; in August this river be rippin.

The people of this valley are Akha, the men can recite their lineage back to common ancestors with all the other Akha of Phongsali, Thailand, China, or wherever. They grow corn and rice above the river on the higher slopes of the mountains. For some reason they leave the trees and forests of the bottomlands uncut. Perhaps some sort of taboo reinforcing good conservation practices.

The trees are some of the tallest and oldest I’ve ever seen in Laos. Maybe it’s just the way they grow so close together amongst the large boulders. The trail is forced to climb up and over and around the roots of the trees in the perpetual twilight of the deep forest. Here the large predators and their prey survive in high numbers, not yet hunted for sale to the underground trade in tiger parts.

Tigers and leopards,
barking deer guar,
bears and civets,
slow loris sambar.

homemade muzzle loader it shoots a very small lead bullet with black powder

Fish eagle fly away,
Jakal can run.
What of the marten and badger,
For them it’s no fun.

Plants and vines growing on tree trunk

The other day bored and googling I came across this web site

Nam Fa Hydropower Project

I quickly scrolled through the article then slowly absorbed the map which is below.

When I enlarged the map all was fuzzy, still I remember enough of the river to recognise the basic lay of things. The Nam Fa trends west and joins a major tributary (Nam Kha) before joining the Mekong itself. I scrolled on back to the technical page. Max height 79 meters, ten kilometre access road. I could see the reservoir not quite reaching Vieng Phouka.

I already knew that many hydroelectric dams had been approved, on the Mekong, in Southern Laos, and a series of dams are planned to destroy almost all of the Nam Ou. I wasn’t surprised really but seing it in black and white really set me back on my heels. Knowing what the people looked like and having slept in their house and eaten their food didn’t help. They weren’t just any people.

Naiban Jakune

Naiban Mongla

Wife Naiban Mongla

Only in reading backwards to search for the start date and for particulars on where the access road would go did I realize the project had been discarded as not profitable enough. I hope it becomes less profitable as time goes by.

Nam Fa looking downstream from the ford below Jakune. After a short while the forest becomes very old and deep.

The following are the visits to the Valley that the Nam Fa runs through so far as I know.

At the beginning of the millennium Wildside Expeditions began to make an attempt to market the idea of a white water rafting trip to the area following their foray down the river on behalf of UNESCO and the Nam Ha Eco tourism folks. Writing in the advertising literature for a trip itinerary the writer, whom I assume must be Bill Tuffin of The Boat Landing Ecotourism Lodge, said, “ The Nam Fa offers one of the most pristine tropical river environments left on earth.”

The wildlife survey down the river by Wildside was the first known instance of outsiders entering the area. I don’t know if they were able to find any takers for their proposed 7 day raft trip. In 04 a mixed group of kayakers including Japanese and Lao nationals also paddled down the river. The rapids are rated at class IV, not too difficult for experienced kayakers, but not the kind of thing for the neophyte.

Beginning in the dry season of 06 Tui the manager of the tourism office in Muang Long started to take trekkers over the mountains on guided walks into the valley. He first took a pair of unknown hikers, then his friend Somjit took a very fast lone Scandinavian guy. Early in the dry season of 06/07 I hiked in with one of Tui’s students, Si Phan guiding me. Later in February 07 Tui hiked in for a second time with a trio of Italians. Even though the Italians were young fit twenty some things they didn’t reach Mongla on the second day until late in the evening. Just after that I too took my second hike, my guide this time was Somjit also his second walk into the valley.

I know that Sak the director of the agricultural department in Muang Long also hiked into Nambo and I assume Jakune as there were also public service health care type posters there. Probably he and Tui were assessing the viability of trekking in the area.

All in all six small groups of two or three people have headed into the valley of the Nam Fa, probably more by now.

I myself have entered or left by four different routes. The first time by cutting over to Nambo then down to Jakune. The river was still too high for crossing to Mongla and we hiked back up on the ridge to the north and tried to follow it down to Xiengkok. We got lost. Not lost lost, just couldn’t find a trail so we walked out to the road.

The first house we came to while headed for the road was perched on a steep side slope. The woman there seemed alone except for five or six dogs that were going wild barking and growling. At the time I thought that it must be a waste to feed so many dogs, now I realize why they kept so many, Asiatic Tiger.

The second time in we walked directly to Mongla due South of Muang Long by cutting over the crest of Phou Mon Lem and across the river below Jakune. We exited by crossing the Nam Fa a couple kilometres downstream of Mongla and regaing the ridge which we followed to Som Pan Yao and out to Xiengkok.

The bright wide blue lines are rivers, Nam Ma up top and Nam Fa below. The smaller darker blue lines are the various routes I walked in and out to the valley as best I remember and the red dots are also where I guess villages to be, from left to right, Som Pan Yao, Mongla, Jakune, and Nambo. Pink dots are abandoned villages one on ridge above Nam Ma valley and the other Jakune Gao.

A look at the map of the Nam Ha NBCA on the Boat Landing web site reveals lots of little animal profiles all over this area and many small house symbols indicating a village. You can easily see the tributary of the Nam Ma in Muang Long heading east and the proliferation of animal signs between it and the Nam Fa to the south. Someone went in there and spotted those animals or their tracks.

Map of the Nam Ha Protected Area on Boat Landing Web Site showing villages and animal locations

I know that Bill Tuffin worked in bringing health care to the area around Muang Long in the 90s, I would have to assume that he and others made perhaps quite a few trips in to the higher elevations and also down into the northern side of the river. Lots of animals are marked on his maps, and towns along both the tributary to the Nam Ma and the north side of the Nam Fa. I suspect many of the towns are now gone or moved. Nambo seems to be much closer to Vieng Phouka than I thought.. And I know one of the village symbols must be the recently abandoned Jakune Gao.

At least three large villages that I know of have moved either to another location or out to the road since this map was made. I covered a small portion of this area, there must be many more relocated ban nock.

The map from The Boat Landing has been invaluable in trying to make sense of where things are. I also cross reference between Google Earth and my old topos that date back to the war. It’s hard trying to remember the lay of the land from some walks I took a year ago. Especially as I was walking as fast as I could just to keep up. But then I am supposed to be able to keep my sense of direction while covering long distances off the trail, it‘s my background. It’s gratifying to see the three sources of information seeming to match my memory. The more I look at the maps and try to remember the shape of the hills, the more the maps and my memories seem to coalesce into a series of overlays in my minds eye with some points in common to all.

The distances between villages is prohibitively far. I don’t see how they can run treks in this area without some places to sleep halfway between the villages. One way or another more and more trips will be made into the valley that surrounds the Nam Fa. My only wish is that future walkers can also see those ancient trees with the wide buttressed trunks, and a wild river not yet dammed.

Ban Nambo

Mar 22, 2008

Lao Forests Plundered At Increasing Rate

Trucks with logs lined up at the border to Vietnam

In my wanderings across cyberspace I stumbled upon this photo a few weeks ago with the caption, "Trucks carrying logs from Khammouane Province in Laos to Ha Tinh Province in Vietnam".

At the time I assumed a fellow tourist had spotted the trucks and logs and taken a photo. The rest of the photos on the flikr account were also good and from out of the way places.

Then this week I ran across an article in Business Week .
Vietnam destroying Lao forests By DENIS D. GRAY BANGKOK, Thailand

Vietnam is acquiring huge quantities of illegally logged timber from neighboring Laos and turning it into furniture for consumers in the United States and Europe, an environmental group said Wednesday.

"Vietnam's booming economy and demand for cheap furniture in the West is driving rapid deforestation" in Laos, Julian Newman of the Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency said at a news conference.

The group showed a video of fleets of trucks laden with logs crossing the border into Vietnam from Laos, which has banned the export of logs and sawn timber.

Every year, an estimated 17.6 million cubic feet of logs are smuggled across the border after false documents are produced and bribes paid, the group said.

The video included Vietnamese businessmen admitting that logs at their factories came from Laos in violation of the country's laws and were processed into furniture for export.
A huge pile of logs from Laos was shown in the Vietnamese port of Vinh, ready for sale.

Newman said businesses in Thailand are also buying illegally cut timber from Laos, which has some of the last great forests in mainland Southeast Asia.

"The cost of such unfettered greed is borne by poor rural communities in Laos who are dependent on the forests for their traditional livelihoods," Newman said.

Vietnamese and Thai officials were not immediately available for comment. The governments of both countries have in the past acknowledged the illegal trafficking of timber from Laos, although the scope of the trade has not previously been clear.

"The ultimate responsibility for this dire state of affairs rests with the consumer markets which import wood products made from stolen timber," Newman said.

Faith Doherty, another EIA staffer, said draft laws now before the U.S. Congress would curb such imports. She said the European Union was taking steps to certify furniture and other forest products as having come from legally procured timber.

An EIA report also released Wednesday noted that Vietnam has taken steps since the 1990s to conserve its own forests while at the same time expanding wooden furniture production, much of it with illegal timber.

Furniture exports from Vietnam totaled $2.4 billion last year, a tenfold increase since 2000. According to the Vietnamese government, 39 percent of the exports in 2006 went to the United States, 14 percent to Japan, 7 percent to Britain and 4 percent each to France and Germany.

"The plundering of Laos' forests involves high-level corruption and bribery and it is not just Vietnam which is exploiting its neighbor.

Thai and Singapore traders are also cashing in," the report said. Posing as investors, EIA staffers met one Thai businessman who bragged of paying bribes to senior Lao military officials to secure timber potentially worth $500 million, the group said.

Press Release: 19 March 2008


EIA Web Site

Vietnam is operating as a centre for processing huge quantities of unlawfully-logged timber from across Indochina, threatening some of the last intact forests in the region, a major new report reveals.

Undercover investigations by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Indonesian NGO Telapak have revealed how Vietnam’s booming economy and demand for cheap furniture in the West is driving rapid deforestation throughout the Mekong river region.

Field investigations in Vietnam and neighbouring Laos, including secret filming and undercover visits to furniture factories, have demonstrated that although some countries like Indonesia have cracked down on the illegal timber trade, criminal networks have now shifted their attention to looting the vanishing forests of Laos.

Urgent Action

This illicit trade is in direct contraventionof laws in Laos banning the export of logs and sawn timber and EIA/Telapak are calling for urgent international action.

Investigators visited numerous Vietnamese furniture factories and found the majority to be using logs from Laos. In the Vietnamese port of Vinh, they witnessed piles of huge logs from Laos awaiting sale.

At one border crossing on one occasion alone, 45 trucks laden with logs were filmed lining up to cross the Laos border into Vietnam. The report estimates at least 500,000 cubic metres of logs are moved in this way every year.


Since the 1990s, Vietnam has taken steps to protect to conserve its remaining forests while at the same time, massively expanding its wooden furniture production.

Vietnam has an unenviable track record in using stolen timber. Past investigations have revealed it laundering illegal timber from both Cambodia and Indonesia

The plundering of Laos’ forests involves high-level corruption and bribery and it is not just Vietnam which is exploiting its neighbour; Thai and Singapore traders are also cashing in.

Posing as investors, EIA/Telapak investigators met one Thai businessman who bragged of paying bribes to senior Laos military officials to secure timber worth potentially half a billion dollars.

“The cost of such unfettered greed is borne by poor rural communities in Laos who are dependent on the forests for their traditional livelihoods,” said EIA's head of Forests Campaign, Julian Newman.

He said the local people gain virtually nothing from this trade, with corrupt Laos officials and businesses in Vietnam and Thailand, the profiteers.

The report concludes that to some extent the dynamic growth of Vietnam’s furniture industry is driven by the demand of end markets like Europe and the US.


“The ultimate responsibility for this dire state of affairs rests with the consumer markets with import wood products made from stolen timber,” said Julian.

“Until these states clean up their act and shut their markets to illegal wood products, the loss of precious tropical forests will continue unabated.”

EIA/Telapak are calling for: better enforcement by the timber-producing and processing countries and new laws banning the import of products and timber derived from illegal logging in the EU and US.