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 world's least developed nations, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is extremely vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. As temperatures rise, 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 dependent 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 Nalan, a Khmu village which was until recently a four hour walk from the nearest road, the community forest that surrounds the village provides much of the food, medicines, building materials and water that the community 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 tons of unexploded ordinance (UXO) now contaminate large areas of forest. Exploding when stepped on, dug up in fields and 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 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. With the community working together in this way, the structure is finished quickly by the many hands that have come to help. After all of the work is done the outbuilding was adorned with blood, in this case the pig that was slaughter for the feast, to ward off evil spirits, and as night falls the celebrations continued with rice whisky into the small hours.
Not only providing building materials, the Laotian jungle serves as a 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 medicines for primary health care.
Of the plants used within traditional remedies, many have been proven to have anticancer, anti-HIV, anti-TB, and anti-malarial properties, some of which contain chemical compounds that were not known previously to pharmaceutical researchers.
_____ picking greens, community forest, Ban Tha Se, Luang Natha Province (2017)
Rattan, 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, the vine is also used to create baskets and furniture that can be sold at market.
_______ scraping the thorns off of rattan,  Ban Tha Se, Luang Natha Province (2017)
To access the soft centre the vine must be scraped 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)
The forest also acts as a rain engine by trapping cool damp moisture from the atmosphere thereby causing clouds to form and precipitation to fall. The rain that falls is then helped to infiltrate and recharge ground water reservoirs by trees and shaded soils on the forests floor. The delayed slow release of ground water from the forest feeds the springs and rivers that provide water year-round for communities like Tha Se to drink, wash and bathe in, 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 and hand thrown nets.  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 has been made forbidden in the Nam Ha National Protected Area in order to protect bio-diversity.
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 accumulated in the form of live trees, plants, fungus, algae and 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 Protected Area, 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. As the community’s springs dry to a trickle in the dry season, they often become contaminated due to the lack of water to wash hands, which is leading to increasing numbers of cases of gastro-intestinal illnesses like diarrhoea and dysentery and to increased vectors for malaria and dengue fever in the community.
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 clean water to maintain feminine hygiene.  As a result, women's education and health is more severally impacted than that of their male counterparts in villages like Nam Nang.
______ 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 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, where teachers at the villages primary school work to impart the importance of protecting biodiversity and primary forest in their lessons, there 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 limiting access to the forest as away of protecting flora and fauna over working with communities to modify customs and diversify livelihoods and sources of sustenance, conservationists are in some cases pushing communities further into poverty. As a result, they risk doing more harm to conservation areas that they wish to protect as local communities increase the presence of livestock, illegal logging, hunting, and the cultivation of opium in remote otherwise untouched areas of forest, as community members try to offset what income they have lost by being denied access to community forests to hunt or extract timber.
______ 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 in community forest or the Nam Ha National Protected Area.
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 Nam Ha National Protected Area, guns that are kept hidden by villagers are still regularly used for hunting. While the majority of those that are used to hunt are homemade muskets, which have short ranges and require great hunting skill to use affectively, high caliber rifles and automatic weapons are also used. A legacy of the past deployment of assault rifles and rifles to village militias during the Laotian civil war, these larger caliber guns are primarily used for hunting large prey like the gaur, a type of wild ox, many of which are endangered.
_____ on his way to hunt overnight in the jungle, Ban Nam Vang, Luang Namtha Province (2017)
The single shot homemade muskets that are favoured by Nam Vang's 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 highly skilled 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 gaur, squirrels, pigeons, frogs, monkeys, bats, pangolins, rats, deer and pheasants. Although conservationists 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 PDR suffers from the pressures of demand for the Chinese wildlife trade, which exploits rare and endangered animals for medicinal uses and specialty cuisine. The trading of wildlife across the border and illegal hunting by Chinese wildlife traders in Lao PDR, 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 forcefully introduced by the British and the French to the region. Since its cultivation was banned in 2006, initiatives to replace opium with other cash crops have attempted to reduce 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. As a result, many have become entangled in the couriering of the drug across borders for criminal gangs to Thailand and Vietnam.
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 has endured persecution by the Laotian government since its involvement in the CIA’s secret war inside Lao PDR during the Vietnam War. As a result, Hmong women face increased marginalisation and disregard through a lack of access to health care and contraception, increased poverty and 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 was returning 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 crossbows and slingshots and by trapping rodents such as squirrels and rats with baited traps. Although, the consumption of rodents such as bamboo rats does expose communities to zoonotic diseases like the SARS virus, the practice helps to control the population of vermin 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 communities.
Rice paddies, Ban Namgeen, Luang Namtha (2017)
However, work is being undertaken by locally led 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 country's economic dependance on agriculture is also 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 banana, melon and sugar cane. With Chinese traders offering all-inclusive services to Laotian farmers and landowners, that provide seeds, fertiliser and the collection and transportation of agricultural products to China, the landscape of Lao PDR's northern provinces that boarder China are rapidly changing as large areas of primary forest are 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 every day 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, seizures, paralysis and lung failure that can lead to death if not treated, chlorpyrifos is banned in the EU, UK and USA. Such widespread and poorly monitored use of pesticides on Chinese run plantations is causing chemicals to run off into streams, where they kill fish and are ingested by the people downstream 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 community's newly planted rubber trees, once matured, would provide a steady stream of income for the village which overtime would increase the community's standard of living. 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 Lao PDR 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 and UK, drive the clearing of forests in developing countries where cash crops are being planted to drive economic growth. The resulting mono-culture plantations which are devoid of under growth sequester a fraction of the carbon and ground water that the primary forests that were cut down would have done.
Motorway brand waste tire,  Henry Flashman’s Scrap Yard, Devon, UK (2017)
The knowledge and practices that indigenous 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’s planetary boundaries. Standing at a crossroads, we now face the choice of continuing to disregard such knowledge and practices as primitive and backwards, thereby letting them disappear, or embracing socio-economic orders based on Indigenous cosmologies that will help us shape a habitable and just future.
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.