2.03 LAO PDR: Indigenous cosmology based futures
Climate change is destabilising the monsoon in South Asia leading to erratic periods of drought and intensified rainfall, explore how indigenous communities are adapting to these changes, how they depend on forests and how indigenous cosmologies can help shape a habitable future.
Smoke, community forest, Luang Namtha, (2017)
As one of the wolds least developed nations,  Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is extremely vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. As temperatures rises the nation is predicted to experience a greater prevalence of extreme weather events, increased rainfall variability and more severe and frequent floods and droughts even though it has contributed less than 0.03% of total global carbon emissions.
With high poverty rates and approximately 70% of the population dependant upon subsistence agriculture and non timber products from the Laotian jungle for their livelihoods, both of which are extremely sensitive to existing climate variations, the nation faces the prospect of increase food insecurity and economic hardship in a climate changed future. With such impacts hitting those in remote communities hardest, the countries 49 minority groups stand to be most affected.
Pathway through community forest to Ban Nalan, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
For the inhabitants of Ban Na Lan, a Khmu village which was until recently a four hour walk from the nearest road, the community forest that surrounds the village provide much of the food, medicines, building materials and water that they depend on.
However, trips into the forest can be deadly. With in excess of two million tonnes of ordnance having been dropped on Lao PDR during the Laotian Civil War and the Vietnam War by U.S forces, hundreds of thousands of tones of unexploded ordinance (UXO) now contaminate large areas of forest. Exploding when stepped on in the forest, dug up in fields and or when mistaken for toys by children, UXOs  continue to kill 50 years after the end of the conflicts.
______ a former Soldier, Comunity forest, Ban Nalan, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
French soldiers helmet, Community forest, Ban Nalan, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
When there is building work to be done in the village of Ban Nalan and the materials have been sourced from the forest and prepared, community members work collectively to quickly assemble new structures, in this case a kitchen outbuilding.
Kitchen construction and feast preparation, Ban Nalan, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
_____, Ban Nalan, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
In return for the help and in accordance with Khmu tradition, the recipient of the new structure will provide what livestock and foraged foodstuffs they can from which a community feast will be prepared to offer sustenance to builders and a celebratory meal to onlookers. On this occasion a pig and several chickens were gifted and prepared with bamboo shoots and rattan in a stew. As a result the structure is finished quickly by the many hands that have come to help and it is then adorned with the blood of the pig to ward of evil sprits. As night falls the celebrations continue with rice whisky.
N ot only providing building materials the Laotian jungle serves as major source of medicinal plants which are collected and administer by healers. With an underdeveloped national health system, rural communities like Ban Nalan and its neighbouring Khmu village Tha Se are highly dependent on traditional medicine for primary health care.
Of the plants used within traditional remedies many have been proven to have anticancer, anti-HIV, anti-TB, and antimalarial properties, some of which contain chemical compounds that were not known previously.
_____ picking greens, community forest, Ban Tha Se, Luang Natha Province (2017)
Ratan, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, greens and edible flowers are all found within the Laotian jungle if you know where to find them. The Laotian variety of the rattan vine is one of the most valuable non timber forest products to communities that depend on the jungle due to its multiple uses. With the soft centre of the spiky base of the vine a tasty protein rich food and the vine itself a tough building material that can be woven together and employed in place of string when building or used to create baskets and furniture that can be sold.
_______ scraping the thorns off of rattan,  Ban Tha Se, Luang Natha Province (2017)
To access the soft centre the vine must be scrapped to remove the thorns around its base. It can then be cooked whole over an open fire or split so that the soft centre can be removed and added to soup or curry.
Pork, rattan and bamboo shoot soup, Ban Tha Se, Luang Natha Province (2017)
Th forest also acts as rain engine by trapping cool damp moisture from the atmosphere the jungle causes clouds to form and precipitation to fall that is then is helped to infiltrate and recharge ground water reservoirs by trees and shaded soils. The slow release of ground water then feeds the springs and rivers that provide drinking water, locations to wash and bathe and the water needed to cultivate rice and other crops.
Communal water source, community forest, Ban Tha Se, Luang Natha Province (2017)
The rivers that emerge from the Laotian jungle not only provide water but also sustenance in the form of fish and cray fish which are caught using home made spear guns, hand thrown nets and by hand.  In the Khmu village of Tha Se on the Nam Ha river, fish are an important source of protein that supplements the little meat that is cultivated from livestock in the village to replace bush meat now that hunting is forbidden in the Nam Ha national park.
When they are eaten in the forest the fish are skewered and lashed with green branches and then cooked over an open fire. When ready to eat the cooked fish is then mixed on a banana leaf with dried chilli, salt and greens picked from the forest and then eaten with pre-cooked sticky rice carried from home wrapped in a banana leaf.
Preparing spear caught fish, The Nam Ha River, Ban Tha Se, Luang Natha Province (2017)
By capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transforming it into biomass through photosynthesis the Laotian jungle has actually absorbed much more carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution than the small percentage of emissions that Lao PDR has itself contributed to total global carbon emissions. When sequestered, carbon is then accumulated in the form of biomass, deadwood, leaf litter and in forest soils where it will remain unless it is burnt once again.
Smoke in the jungle, Community forest, Ban Tha Se, Luang Natha Province (2017)
However, irregular monsoons, rain fall and deforestation are threatening drinking-water supplies in villages like Nam Nang. Situated within the Nam Ha national park, the remote village sits atop a mountain up a long and winding muddy track.  
The Village of Nam Nang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
Home to members of the Akha ethic group, the village faces increased water stress during the dry season which is leading to cases of gastro intestinal illnesses as the communities springs dry to a trickle and become contaminated due to the lack of water to wash hands.
Plastic motor oil and vegetable oil gerry cans used to collect water, Ban Nam Namg, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
______ at the spring, Ban Nam Namg, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
The task of collecting water in Akha villages falls on women and young girls, who use gourds to fill plastic jerrycans that are then carried in yoked baskets to the home. With increasing water stress disproportionately effecting the villages women as they spend more time collecting water and have less access to water to maintain feminine hygiene. As a result their education and health is more severally impacted than that of their male counterparts.
______ on her way to collect water, Ban Nam Namg, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
As  a magnifier of gender inequality, climate change is impacting women hardest because they are often poorer and commonly dependent on men. Through their socially constructed roles, women suffer continued violation of their rights and an increasing burden of responsibilities in a warming world. Often perceived as incapable owing to their status, a perception that compounds their victimhood, women play crucial roles during times of economic hardship and food scarcity as they they devise ways to support, nourish and shelter their children and in some cases their husbands.
_________ on her way to collect wood from the forest, Ban Nam Namg, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
Although education is key to imparting the importance of conservation in villages like Nam Nang, their is a limit to what level of anti human conservation practices that communities can adapt to without alternative livelihoods being factored in to plans for protected areas.
Primary school class room, Ban Nam Namg, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
By favouring flora and fauna over customs and livelihoods conservationists are in some cases pushing communities further into poverty. As a result they risk doing more harm to to conservation areas that they wish to protect as local communities increase the presence of livestock, illegal logging, hunting, or the cultivation of opium in remote otherwise untouched areas of forest to try and offset what income they have lost by being denied access to, or the practice of, traditional activities in community forests closer to the village.
______ leading a buffalo back to the village, Ban Nam Namg, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
Cleared forest on the Village track to Ban Nam Nang,  Luang Namtha Province (2017)
The village of Nam Vang which is situated up a long steep mountain track is home to people of the Hmong ethnic group. With most of those who live in Nam Vang not able to travel to market to buy meat and buffalo only being raised to sell and seldom eaten, most of the protein that is consumed in the remote village comes from chickens, pigs, river fish or bush meat that is hunted.
Pathway leading to to communal forest from the village of Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province  (2017)
Despite the collection of weapons from villages within the nation park area, guns that have been hidden are still regularly used for hunting. While the majority of those that are used to hunt are homemade muskets, some rifles and automatic weapons remain as a legacy of the past deployment of assault rifles to village militia during the Laotian civil war.
_____ on his way to hunt overnight in the jungle, Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
The single shot home made muskets that are favoured by hunters are typically re-constructed from historic Hmong weapons and use black powder and firing caps to propel small rocks or lead shot at quarry. With each single shot needing to be primed and loaded and the effective range of the weapon being short, hunters must be skilled enough to get close to their prey and as a result many animals escape.
Home made musket,  Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
A wide variety of wildlife is hunted or collected from the jungle surrounding Nam Vang including squirrels, pigeons, frogs, monkeys, bats, pangolins, rats, dear and pheasants. Although conservationist are working to sensitise hunters to avoid endangered species, snares and traps which work in the hunters absence to catch animals without discrimination between species are still having a devastating impact on endangered species.
_____ on his way to hunt overnight in the jungle, Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
With its proximity to the Chinese border, the North of Lao suffers from the pressures of demand of the Chinese wildlife trade which exploits rare and endangered animals for medicinal uses and specialty cuisine. The trading of wildlife across the border further exacerbates the depletion of species that Laotians themselves depend upon for dietary requirements and livelihood practices.
Dead Small Indian Civet, Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
The Hmong people have grown opium for its medicinal properties and as a lucrative trading good since the early 19th century when it was introduced by the British and the French to the region. Since it’s cultivation was banned in 2006, initiatives to replace opium with other cash crops have attempted to reduced its prevalence within the north of Lao PDR. However those living in remote communities who face the prospect of increased poverty if they stop growing opium have continued to cultivate it in hidden plantations within the jungle and have become entangled in the couriering of the drug across the boarder to Thailand and Vietnam for criminal gangs.
Father and Daughter, Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
As a result, the area referred to as the Golden Triangle, a name coined by the CIA for the area in which the borders of Lao PDR, Thailand and Myanmar meet, has seen increasing levels of cultivation of opium in recent years as climate change impacts the livelihoods and the subsistence farming of remote rural communities.
Smokey kitchen,  Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
The Hmong ethnic group still endures persecution for it’s involvement within the CIA’s secret war during the Vietnam War. As a result Hmong women face increased marginalisation and disregard through a lack of access to health care, increased poverty, higher rates of illiteracy. With Hmong communities living in remote areas in close proximity to the Chinese boarder, Hmong women are being targeted by human traffickers who abduct women and girls to work as forced labourers and sex workers in China. The village of Nam Vang had recently suffered the abduction of one woman, a mother of one, who was kidnaped by Chinese people traffickers in broad day light as she returned from the main road on foot.
_______, Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
In Nam Vang adolescent boys contribute to household food security by hunting small birds with wooden cross bows and slingshots and by trapping rodents such as squirrels and rats with baited traps. While the consumption of rodents such as rats does expose communities to zoonotic diseases such as viruses like SARS, the practice helps to control the population of vermin like bamboo rats which can decimate swidden rice crops.
_______ returning from the forest after setting traps for rats, Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
Forest pathway, Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
Rice, the staple food of every household in Lao PDR is grown in both upland swiddens and lowland paddies. With one third of the population experiencing rice shortfalls between 2-6 months of the year already, it is expected that climate change will extend lean periods leading to greater incidences of malnutrition in poorer comunities.
Rice paddies, Ban Namgeen, Luang Namtha (2017)
However, work is being undertaken by development agencies to increase the countries food security by planting drought and flood resistant rice strains that have been handed down by generations of Laotian farmers on a larger scale.
____ & ____ returning from working in the villages communal rice paddies,  Ban Namgeen, Luang Namtha (2017)
Young rice plants,  Ban Namgeen, Luang Namtha (2017)
With much of rice cultivation and subsistence farming in Lao PDR done collectively at the village level, communities reap the rewards of larger crop yields while simultaneously increasing the food security of the entire village. In the village of Khone communal gardens generate enough produce to feed the village and sell items at the market in Luang Namtha.
Communal gardens, Khone, Luang Namtha, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
______ working in the villages communal gardens, Khone, Luang Namtha, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
However, climate exacerbated food insecurity and the countries economic dependance on agriculture is placing increasing pressure on forests as Lao PDR opens to Chinese investors who are buying up and renting agricultural land to cultivate cash crops such as bananas, melons and sugar cane. With Chinese traders offering all inclusive services that provide seeds, fertiliser, the collection and transportation of agricultural products to China to Laotian farmers and landowners, the landscape of the Northern provinces that boarder China is rapidly changing as large areas of primary forest are being cleared to grow cash crops.
Water melon crop, Thaluang, Veng Pou kha, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
Chinese business owners are also exploiting the Laotian population as a workforce. Although the wages that are provided by Chinese employers are often higher than what can be earned locally the work is hard, with workers living next to plantations in temporary shelters and working everyday during the growing season.
________ a contracted agricultural worker working for a Chinese business, Thaluang, Veng Pou kha, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
Melon plant seedlings, Thaluang, Veng Pou kha, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
Workers are also exposed to hazardous pesticides with little or no protective equipment as chemicals such as chlorpyrifos are being used on plantations. Known to cause nausea, seizers, paralysis and lung failure that can lead to death if not treated, chlorpyrifos is banned in the EU, UK and USA. Such wide spread and poorly monitored use of pesticides on plantations is causing chemicals to run off into streams, where they kill fish and are ingested by the people who depend upon the water source for drinking water, clothes washing and bathing.  
________ a contracted agricultural worker working for a Chinese business spraying pesticides, Thaluang, Veng Pou kha, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
When asked what his hopes were for the Future of his village, the village leader of Tha Se explained how he hoped that the newly planted rubber trees, once mature would provide a steady income for the village which would in-turn increase the standard of living in the village. Taking six years to grow enough so that the sap from the tree can be harvested, the rubber trees were expected to generate an annual income of 4 million Lao Kip ($438 USD) per household.
Pong looking at a young rubber tree, Ban Tha Se, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
The rubber industry in Northern Laos has come by way of transfer across the border from Yunnan province in China where rubber is being produced to satisfy growing domestic consumption, with China expected to consume as much as 30% of the worlds rubber in 2020. However, with Luang Namtha province's rubber factories being owned and operated by Chinese nationals most of the profits are being exported to china along with the rubber.
Rubber plantations near Luang Namtha, Luang Namtha Province, Image © CNS / Airbus, Google Earth, (2007 / 2020)
Industrial agriculture is the most significant driver of deforestation in tropical and sub tropical countries accounting for up to 80% of deforestation since 2000. The demand for products such as soy, palm oil and rubber for global commodity markets which are traded upon and controlled by developed nations like the U.S, drive the clearing of forests in developing counties where cash crops are planted to drive economic growth. The resulting mono culture plantations which are devoid of under growth sequester a fraction of the carbon that the original forest would have done.
Motorway brand waste tire,  Henry Flashman’s Scrap Yard, Devon, UK (2017)
The knowledge and practices that idigedrnous communities in Lao PDR  uphold, and those of indigenous peoples from around the world, suggest ways for humanity to function within the limits of the earth. Standing at a cross roads we now face the choice of continuing to disregard such knowledge and practices as primitive and backwards or embracing them before they disappear for ever as we consider what the future may be.
2.03 LAO PDR: Indigenous cosmology based futures
Climate change is destabilising the monsoon in Asia leading to erratic periods of drought and intensified rainfall, explore how indigenous communities are adapting to these changes, how they depend on forests and how indigenous cosmologies can help shape a habitable future.