Written by Joel Persson.

The Long Road Ahead – Reflections on a few weeks of preliminary fieldwork in Laos.

When I arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, I had, luckily, already established a few leads and contacts to get me going during these initial few days. While in Vientiane, I spent most of my time talking to people who work with forest conservation and land-use, mapping the major actors, their connections and main activities, and the funding flows to other parts of the country. After a couple of weeks getting an understanding of the who, what, where and why of conservation in Laos, we set off for Houaphan, one of the most remote provinces in the Northern part of the country near the border of Vietnam. The plan: visit four districts within and around the National Protected Area (NPA) Nam Et Phou Louy (NEPL). The main goal was to introduce myself and my research to the government offices and officials there and conduct some preliminary interviews. However, I also wanted to get an impression of how conservation-related activities are influencing how people make decisions about land-use, and how this is affecting people’s livelihoods; all part of an understanding of the region, which will inform my future study of the region.

So, we left Vientiane with high spirits, and a bit of optimism, as we set off for the long road ahead. We quickly realized the journey would take (a lot) longer than expected. But this is not surprising, given our path consisted mainly of dirt roads winding along steep mountainsides, essentially unrepaired since the most recent bouts of heavy rain. Luckily, I was in good company: an experienced Lao researcher Dr Thoumthone, my supervisor Professor Ole Mertz, and research assistant Sisouthone, all of us excited to learn what our journey would reveal.

To the right you can see the road carved out along the mountainside (Photo: O. Mertz)

Though at times uncomfortable, the drive offered an endless array of incredible landscape in this mountainous region of Northern Laos. We were particularly intrigued by a newly opened road built by the military, which ran along the mountainsides and cut through the centre of the NPA. The road connected one of the most remote districts in the province with the provincial capital, Xam Neua. The improved access facilitated by the road has opened up new livelihood opportunities for the people living in these areas. Large grazing areas had massively expanded in the past few years, complementing the shifting cultivation plots scattered across the landscape, and satellite images show that forest loss is concentrated in areas adjacent to the road. A network of dead trees covered the top of the mountain range – at this altitude, temperatures can drop to below zero – offering a new source of firewood and agricultural land. But while opening up new opportunities, these processes also complicate the work of the NPA trying to manage forest and land use in the landscape. At the same time, district officials, with technical support from international NGOs, were pursuing a range of other initiatives to enhance sustainable land and forest management.

Temporary huts, called ‘sanam’, where farmers practicing swidden agriculture would live and work during peak times of the season (Photo: O. Mertz)

Technical staff demarcating household boundaries for a land titling project in a village (Photo: O. Mertz)

The people who live in these areas are surrounded by landscapes that are magnificent, but make for a challenging living. The impacts of climate change, including soil erosion, landslides, and flooding, are pervasive and increasing, and compound other problems of daily life, such as making sure their family has sufficient rice to eat for the entire year.

This village, nestled in the mountainsides, had 20 houses washed away during the most recent raining season. Their swidden farming plots strewn across the landscape have also been heavily affected by landslides (Photo: O. Mertz)

After a long and bumpy road, we arrived in Xam Neua, the homeland of the Pathet Lao, the communist political movement and organization in Laos, which assumed political power in 1975. Famous for the network of caves from which the government planned its activities not far from the city, safe from the bombing above, Xam Neua is a fascinating place, with apparent socialist roots, and a visible influence from neighbouring Vietnam. But locally, Xam Neua is known for its barbeque, sticky rice and homebrewed spirits.

The incredible support I received during my short visit to Laos makes my job as a PhD-researcher much easier, and a lot more enjoyable. I had the opportunity to talk to a range of stakeholders about what incentives influence their decisions, how conservation efforts create new opportunities and constraints, and how these link to distant places through multiscale and layered networks that enable flows of information, funding, and policies.

Enjoying a dinner at the house of a contact, complete with homemade rice wine infused with roots. Each food item on the table had been sourced from the nearby area (Photo: O. Mertz)

The way back down to Vientiane was a gruelling 20-hour drive in a local bus, crammed full with bags of rice, seeds and agricultural equipment. But it was an excellent opportunity to absorb the sounds, sights, and smells of the past weeks and start reflecting on what I had learned. Although I left Laos with more questions than answers, the insights I gained from talking to people has greatly helped me focus my research. Overall, I could not have had a smoother entry to the research world in Laos, much thanks to a fantastic network of peers, researchers, and supportive individuals. Much gratitude goes to the members of the Faculty of Forestry at the National University of Laos and the researchers at the Centre for Development, University of Bern office in Vientiane. Now, back in Europe, the next step is to process this input and reflect on how best to use this experience, while I plan for the long road ahead.

Joel Persson is working on the project International forest conservation discourses and local decisions as telecoupled systems, based at the University of Copenhagen. He explores the complex and distal linkages between conservation discourses and the local decisions on which many global conservation efforts depend.

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