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.

Feb 14, 2008

Thanks For Reading

Flower Pots Muang Xali

Once in a while I get a quick note via the comments section of a post or via email from a reader who likes my blog. A recent commentator said he’d read the whole blog, beginning to end in a couple of sittings.

I often check my site meter to find other people doing similar things. Maybe twice a week I’ll find someone has been on the blog for 3 hours twice in the last day and viewed 20 pages. Someone with an interest in Laos reading for background I‘d assume.

The site meter became invisible when Google made some changes in Blogger, and I never bothered to fix it. I’m not trying to sell ad space anyway. Lao Bumpkin gets about 50 hits a day, I’m assuming that will go up as I’m a frequent contributor to the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum and they recently reinstalled the tag line feature where there is a link to this blog.
People looking on Lonely Planet tend to read more anyway.

Often I get people who enter the wrong search words on Google. Like the heart throb rock group from India, Moon Moon Sen, pulling up my post about that noodle salad Yam Moon Sen. Or people looking for images of Eve in the garden of Eden and they come up with that picture of my one year old daughter holding the snake in the post entitled, Eve In The Garden With Snake.

Besides how long people have viewed the blog, the site meter tells me if they have left the blog on one of my links or clicked on a photo to see it larger. I’m thrilled. If you wish to complement the blog simply click on a photo you like, I’ll see it.

The MSG post got a link from a Wall Street Journal article online, whose authors did a real nice job describing the current craze for “unami”, the naturally occurring free glutamate found in many foods. The funniest is the “Unami bomb” mixing up the heaviest combinations of naturally free glutamate such as parmesan cheese and tomatoes. Sounds like a cheese pizza to me.

Eleven months ago we got on a plane and left Laos. About time I went back.

Feb 9, 2008

Pawn Still Gone

Pawn a local advocate of environmental protection and sustainable tourism

I think some background is in order.

Just about a year ago the co owner of the Boat Landing Guest house in Luang Namtha disappeared while enroute to an appointment with the police to discuss the recent attempted arson of his eco lodge by unknown parties. Nothing was heard from him since.

I, like many other people who didn't know him, and weren't intimately familiar with the local situation in Luang Namtha, could imagine many scenarios where he might have had conflicting interests with rubber plantation developers, loggers, the government agencies carrying on relocation of upland peoples on a massive scale, or more mundane private matters, loss of face, jealously, who knows what.

Bertil Lintner the writer of this artical has a long and very good reputation for reporting on Burma, North Korea and other reclusive regimes of East Asia. One would have to assume he has good sources in this case. Mr. Lintner is the only public new news from a reputable source I've seen since the incident first occured.

Asia Times

Southeast Asia
Feb 2, 2008

Fear of foreigners in Laos
By Bertil Lintner

LUANG PRABANG, Laos - It is has been one year since Sompawn Khantisouk was abducted by men believed to be local police officers. The whereabouts of the entrepreneur, the owner and manager of a small eco-tourism lodge in northern Laos, are still unknown - indeed, no one other than his abductors even knows if he is still alive.

Many at the time assumed he was taken away as punishment for trying to mobilize local villagers in the area against Chinese-sponsored rubber plantation projects. Now it seems more likely that Sompawn was victim to a new and pressing dilemma facing one of the world's last remaining communist-ruled countries: how to balance rapid market-driven economic growth with the strict

social controls that the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has kept in place since it assumed power in 1975.

Sompawn ran the famous Boat-Landing resort, which is mentioned in most foreign guide books to Laos and had won several awards for its contribution to environmentally sound sustainable tourism. Eco-tourism promotion is even listed as one of the Lao government's five main development priorities, along with hydroelectric power, construction materials, agriculture and mining.

Last July, Laos hosted an Ecotourism Forum, which brought together tour operators, travel agents, hoteliers, development agencies and government authorities from throughout the Mekong river region. Those efforts have won significant international plaudits, including a New York Times survey that recently ranked Laos as the world’s top adventure tourism spot in 2008.

At the same time, there are entrenched official fears about growing foreign influence in the country, particularly in remote rural areas. Sompawn's partner was an American citizen and the country's security agencies were reportedly not pleased to see a foreigner help run the successful business. At about the time Sompawn disappeared, his American partner left the country and has not since returned.

Soon thereafter, at least two foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were ordered out of Luang Nam Tha, the province where the Boat-Landing is located. Other, lesser-known operators of small local businesses with foreign links were threatened with expulsion or stricter supervision of their activities, according to sources in northern Laos.

"On the one hand, the government welcomes the foreign revenue from tourism, while on the other it fears the security implications of allowing tourists to wonder at will around the country," wrote Song Kinh, an article published in the Irrawaddy news magazine. Officials overseeing the fast-growing tourism sector tend to be somewhat more accommodating to foreigners, while security personnel are less so.

The latter are particularly suspicious of foreign-run NGOs, many of which work to empower local communities by teaching them basic democratic principles and which security officials see as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party, the country’s only political party. While Sompawn's local business was not an NGO, many of its tourism activities were done in close consultation with local communities.

Foreign devils
As a legacy of wars in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, first against the French and then against the US in what the Lao government refers to as "the 30-year struggle", the country's communist rulers remain wary of foreign influences. For instance, some of the NGOs that have been targeted for harassment are known to have had Christian connections.

While the vast majority of the country's lowlanders are Buddhist, Christianity has made inroads in the highlands, home of several ethnic minorities that have a long history of resistance to integration into mainstream Lao society. There are historical reasons for their squeamishness. During the Indochina conflict, thousands of Hmong tribesmen - although ostensibly part of the then Royal Lao Army - were armed and equipped by the American Central Intelligence Agency to fight the communist Pathet Lao, which, in the end, emerged victorious in the war.

Then American Christian missionaries worked more or less openly for the CIA, among them the legendary Edgar "Pop" Buell, an Indiana farmer who was assigned to the Xieng Khouang area in and around the Plain of Jars, where he came into contact with the Hmong. Later, he became the principal contact man between the CIA and the Hmong, working closely with the Hmong warlord Vang Pao, who escaped to the US before the communist takeover in 1975, and, despite his now advanced age, has continued to campaign against the country's communist rulers.

In June last year, the authorities in California arrested him on charges of masterminding a plot to overthrow the Lao government with arms and equipment that were ready to be shipped to Thailand. Eight others were also arrested and charged with violating the federal US Neutrality Act, among them a former California National Guard, Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Ulrich Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate who was involved in covert operations during the Vietnam War.

The other seven were all Hmong from Laos who had been resettled in the US after the end of the war. The criminal complaint said Vang Pao and the other defendants plotted an insurgent campaign, "by violent means, including murder, assaults on both military and civilian officials in Laos and the destruction of buildings and property". In July, he was released on bail.

However, the events in California had repercussions in Thailand, where in a bid to ease bilateral tensions the government announced that it would repatriate thousands of Hmong refugees back to Laos. Now totaling about 8,000, their numbers have swelled in recent years due to fresh arrivals, indicating that all is not well in the Lao mountains. Although the Hmong insurgency, which simmered on throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, is now more or less over, there are reports of occasional skirmishes and ambushes involving hill-tribe bands, mostly in the area around Phou Bia mountains south of the Plain of Jars, and near the town of Kasi on the main road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

With the revelations of a Vang Pao's latest plot, the already paranoid security authorities in Laos may have seen a broader US conspiracy in the eco-tourism joint venture they broke up with Sompawn's abduction and the US citizen fleeing the country. They may also have read with some suspicion the US State Department's International Religious Freedom Reports, which frequently mention "abuses of citizen's religious freedom" in Laos, especially arrests of Christians and actions taken against the independent Lao Evangelical Church (LEC). The 2007 report mentions closure of LEC-affiliated churches and the detention without charges of local Christian community leaders.

Costly xenophobia
With that bad publicity, the security authorities seem to believe that remote provinces such as Luang Nam Tha are better cleansed of foreign, especially Western, influences. Wealthy Chinese tourists to the newly opened casino on the Lao side of the frontier at Boten bring in only money, not new potentially destabilizing ideas about human rights and democracy, so they remain welcome. Aloon Dalaloy, vice governor of Luang Nam Tha, is reported to have told a public gathering in the province last year that "we are still fighting the revolution, not against the enemy's bombs and guns, but the Americans and the Christians are still our enemies."

Such rhetoric, of course, overlooks the more pressing national challenges the transition to a free-market economy represents. As the Lao economy continues is rapid expansion, with gross domestic product growth up over 7% in the past two years, there is an acute and growing shortage of skilled labor. And there is no remedy in sight, unless the government moves to employ more outside experts. In a paper dated December 14, 2007, the Asia Foundation pointed out that Laos has only one university, which opened only 11 years ago. Prior to that, students were sent to the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries for higher education, but that training is often irrelevant to the country’s current human needs.

When the National University of Laos enrolled its first class in 1996, there were just over 8,000 students. Today there are nearly 27,000 at the university, but, the Asia Foundation says, the shortage of human and economic resources poses constant challenges and most faculty members have no degree beyond bachelor's level. With the country's few skilled professionals opting to work in better-paying foreign-led private enterprises, according to the Asia Foundation, it is hard "to imagine how departments like engineering, natural sciences and business will be able to keep their best and brightest teachers, all but eliminating the mechanism for building a future generation of capable Lao professionals".

That means the Lao government can either dramatically raise the salaries of professors and technocrats, or employ more foreigners to fill the gaps - and hope that foreign donors will pay for their much higher expatriate salaries. But that also means more foreign influences, not only in sectors like ecotourism and small-scale rural development schemes but in central government institutions as well. That arguably would pose an even graver threat to central control than foreign-managed eco-tourism resorts or NGO and missionary activities in politically sensitive highland areas.

The ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party has arrived at a crucial crossroads and the direction pursued will likely make or break its still tentative economic reform experiment. Clearly there are still elements in the party who are reluctant to change their repressive ways, accept new social and economic realities and move the country forward.

Sompawn’s arrest and disappearance is testament to that inertia. But with the country's greater integration into the global economy, party officials will sooner or later have to face the fact that even landlocked Laos cannot remain insulated from foreign influences.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review, for which he wrote frequently on Lao politics and economics. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

Feb 3, 2008

MSG in Lao Food (Bang Nuah)

Center right you can see the classic long crystaline structure of MSG

IFIC dot org

In the early 1900s a Japanese scientist was studying which parts of the tongue recognise different tastes. When testing his wife’s soup flavoured with seaweed, he identified a fifth basic taste. He called it uami, we would call it savoury. It’s what gives that extra good flavour to cooked tomatoes and aged cheeses. The other tastes are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Although MSG had been used for thousands of years. that Japanese scientist was the first to isolate the chemical compound that gave us that taste.

MSG doesn’t enhance the taste of all foods, only in those predisposed to a hearty taste. It is used much the way salt or sugar is. If you’ve ever baked a cake you know that the recipe often calls for a quarter teaspoon of salt, similarly homemade cookies. One wouldn’t want cookies or cake to taste salty, but a good cook knows that just that little bit brings out the flavour. Like salt MSG only takes a little bit. If you add salt to a soup until you taste it you’ve already added too much.

Sometimes I’ve heard good cooks who should know better claim that good food doesn’t require MSG. Well I guess not, neither does it require salt or fresh squeezed lime but it might well taste better if it had all three. I’ve never used it on fruit or ice cream but I have in salads containing meat or fish sauce. I use it to marinate meat, in soup stock, in laap, and in jeao, I even use it in those steamed vegetables with sesame called soup pak. I never add it to the foe I buy at a restaurant, I figure it’s already there in the correct proportions.

I first became aware that the MSG myth is simply that when reading an entry into one of the guide books to Thailand penned by the prolific Joe Cummings. I’ll just kind of lift parts from one of the old books.

“Many visitors try to avoid this natural substance, believing they are allergic to it, or that it’s dangerously high in sodium.

For the record, MSG is a simple compound of glutamate, water, and sodium (about two thirds less by weight than in table salt.). Glutamate, an amino acid that occurs naturally in virtually every food, is a major component of most natural protein sources. Like salt and sugar, MSG has been used in Asia for centuries, originally as a distillate of seaweed. Today it’s produced through a natural fermentation and evaporation process using molasses made from sugar cane or sugar beets. …..

Contrary to popular myth, the human body metabolises glutamate added to food the same way it metabolises glutamate already found in food. Although some people report physical reactions to MSG (the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome) every placebo controlled food research study on humans thus far published has concluded that such reactions can almost always be traced not to MSG but rather to psychological syndromes or to food allergies other than MSG.”

Bang Nuah for sale at the Tesco Nong Khai

In the mid 1990s the American Food and Drug Administration published a politically influenced qualification to their finding that there were no safety issues linked to use of MSG in food. They went on to list symptoms which “may occur” even though they could find no instance of them and then went on to list all the anecdotal evidence. Kind of similar to the right wing’s attempts to deny global warming.

In my minds eye I can just imagine Bill woofing down huge take away dinners of Chinese food and Hillary looking on concerned and noticing the flushing and sweating from his clogged arteries and attributing it to an MSG attack. Rapid fluttering heartbeats, shortness of breath, dreaming of Monica.

If I had to identify a typical sufferer of MSG I’d say a female with a college degree in something not scientific, whose parents were in the upper fifth by income in the United States. Certainly not the 2 billion (billion with a B) Asians who have used it daily without any reaction their entire lives.

Scientifically there is little interest in more studies of MSG. There’s nothing there. Friends who are chemists find it laughable. All a scientist has to do is review studies already done and the conclusions are obvious. Yet the urban legend continues.

I attribute the belief to the same source that creates the beliefs in aroma therapy or grand conspiracies. Deep down I think we all need to find reasons for things we don’t understand. The older I get the more commonality I find between the Akha who live in a village where there is not one literate person who has ever attended a school, and our supposed sophisticated educated modern society.