Our PhD student Joel has spent the past month in Northern Laos. He sent us this postcard of his initial reflections and experiences from a village nested in a stunning mountainous landscape inside one of Laos’ most renowned national parks, Nam-Et Phou-Louey. Laos is a country undergoing rapid changes in land-use, which has great impacts on conservation of natural areas and the livelihood of the people in those regions.
Written by Joel Persson
For people in the mountainous areas of Northern Laos, sticky rice is literally their bread and butter, making up most of their food intake. Growing upland rice on sloping fields is an extremely important livelihood activity, not just for ensuring that there’s enough food for the whole year, but also because of its cultural value. People here are not just farmers, though. They are also foragers and hunters, living off resources they can find in the surrounding forests and fields, having often relocated to this area precisely for the abundant natural resources and land it offers. A myriad of different plants used for food, medicine, and handicrafts; animals of all sizes caught in fields, fallows or forests, using traditional traps or crossbows, or more recently, guns; and letting cattle roam loose in the forest to graze – those are some of the main ways people use the forest and have done so for decades.
For farming, people typically follow a rotational scheme, also called shifting cultivation, which involves leaving plots to fallow for up to ten years before returning to it. They then slash and burn the vegetation for its nutrients to grow a variety of rice that can be cultivated on slopes. Though extremely labour-intensive and prone to unexpected shocks, such a livelihood system has allowed communities to live in relative autonomy and independence for a long time. Strict government restrictions on shifting cultivation have gradually limited the practice, however, and sitting inside a relatively well-funded park has created additional restrictions on land-use and other livelihood practices. But those are not the only causes of the transformations we see in this landscape. New links to urban and international markets, the private sector, the government, and other social interventions have meant that traditional land-use and livelihood practices are undergoing rapid changes.
These changes have been brought on by a number of factors that have improved possibilities for interacting with distant places and people, prompting changes in the incentives for how people interact with their environment. Let’s take one example: infrastructure construction. The road connecting the village to the provincial capital was built less than fifteen years ago, before which it took a full day to get to the nearest city and market, and improvement work (i.e. paving) finished only a few months before our visit (as part of a government push to provide access to a tourist site not far from the village). The easier access has allowed traders for all sorts of products to be able to more easily come to the village and advertise demand from distant markets, and more can be expected in the future. The products range from obscure roots used for traditional medicine in Vietnam to commercial crops such as maize and cattle (not to mention more illicit products including rare wildlife and opium). Social ties help, but those arriving in the village are mostly just people looking to make a small profit, who have heard about the improved road. As one man building a market shed noted, the business for forest products is ‘booming,’ serving as the main income source for many families.
Because of these developments, we see markets becoming an increasingly important guide for people’s decision-making, supported by government policies for commercialisation. But social networks are still crucial. Having the right connections can enable opportunities left wanting by others who are less well-positioned. Not only by having better opportunities for getting good farmland, but also the access to information granted by one’s position within the village authority can improve one’s ability to take advantage of new opportunities.
At the same time, these same factors help the government and conservation actors put in place and enforce regulations that may reduce people’s ability to adapt to these rapid changes in their environment and grab onto new market opportunities. Two forces are acting on the village: strong market links for forest and land-based products on the one side, and restrictions on land and forest access from the park on the other. The park, known for being the last breeding place of Indochinese tigers in Indochina, is receiving vast amounts of funding and support from international agencies such as the World Bank, with a clear interest in conserving the landscape and the wildlife living within.
But the incentives placed on people in the park are not all restrictive; there is a big move towards sustainable livelihoods through conservation-friendly crops such as shade-grown coffee, alternative livelihoods including handicraft and ecotourism, and other measures such as awareness-raising campaigns. While few dispute the importance of conserving wildlife, how the impacts of these measures affect different people within the village and across the park’s landscape is unclear. This is one of the questions I will try to shed some light on with my research, and the fieldwork has been a great step in the right direction.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without such a fantastic team, spending long hours revising the empirical instruments, driving through winding roads, and discussing what’s on the menu for tomorrow’s lunch. A huge Thank You to Dr. Thoumthone Vongvisouk, Mr. Kamdet and Mr. Douangta at Faculty of Forestry in NUOL; local research assistants Pah Mi Xai and Lee Poh Song; my trusted collaborator Anousith Keophoxay for his wisdom and guidance; Professor Ole Mertz for his enduring support, as well as the staff at the Provincial and District Agricultural and Forestry Offices for making this possible.
It was an awesome and humbling experience talking to villagers about the challenges and opportunities they face because of these different telecoupled processes, and how this is affecting how they interact with their environment. Though it was tough to say goodbye, I expect it will not be too long before I return.