In the light of my post yesterday about the conceptual weakness of many discussions of phum panyaa (local wisdom) I was delighted to receive this summary of an important new report on local livelihood challenges in Laos. This sort of nuanced discussion of local capability can be hard to find amidst the plethora of images of farmers as “romantic heroes”, “hapless victims” or “country bumpkins.” Great work!

Power, Progress and Impoverishment: Plantations, Hydropower, Ecological Change and Community Transformation in Hinboun District, Lao PDR by Keith Barney. [Available here.]

How are the ecosystem changes resulting from hydropower mega-projects overlapping with the outcomes of other resource development activities in Southeast Asian landscapes? What can be the role of in-depth, ethnographic research in moving beyond accounts of the “impacts” of hydropower projects upon rural communities; and rather- through nuanced and compelling accounts- show how people also struggle to respond, with all their skill, imagination, and agency, to the transformations which hydropower development ushers in, and thus actively re-shape and re-materialise project effects in the process?

Power, Progress and Impoverishment tells the story of the complex ecological and socio-economic changes underway in a rural village in Hinboun District, Lao PDR-Ban (village) Pak Veng. This community is shown as in the midst of a rapid ecological and social transition, occurring in relation to two of Laos’ flagship resource sector development projects: the Theun-Hinboun Power Company (THPC) hydropower project, and the Oji-Laos Plantation Forestry Ltd. (LPFL) pulpwood plantation project. Both of these companies have benefited from Asian Development Bank programs in Laos, directly through loan and grant project financing, and indirectly through sector and policy reforms.

The report documents, in ethnographic detail, the ‘double displacement’ effects and multiple forces of enclosure occurring in this village, from the overlapping outcomes of hydropower and an industrial tree plantations development, which are slowly squeezing villager livelihoods.

A first series of ecological changes in Ban Pak Veng arrived with the downstream effects of the THPC inter-based hydropower diversion project. In addition to negative effects upon fisheries, riverside gardens, drinking water, and human and livestock health, the natural flooding regime of the middle Hinboun valley intensified significantly in the years after the THPC project came online in 1998. Very likely linked to massive upstream riverbank erosion patterns from THPC operations, after 2001 the middle and lower Hinboun valley became inundated with floodwaters nearly every wet season. This new flooding regime has made it impossible for villagers in Ban Pak Veng to plant their staple crop- lowland wet-season rice paddy along the banks of the Hinboun.

After a structurally undercapitalised and ultimately failed attempt in Ban Pak Veng to reconstruct village livelihoods by THPC’s Mitigation and Compensation Program, the post-2001 response to serious food insecurity was to shift more fully into planting rice in the village’s upland forests, through swidden cultivation. Initiating the ‘double displacement’ effect, in 2001 these village managed forests, which represent a mixed agro-forest production system producing a wide range of crucial non-timber forest products, were zoned through the Laos Land and Forest Allocation (LFA) program for commercial eucalyptus development, with paltry compensation. This process was however in accord with state policy.

For the agencies of the Government of Laos and key donors such as the ADB, swidden cultivation systems in Laos are often seen as damaging to the environment and as unproductive. Swidden is often viewed as an anachronistic upland livelihood practice to be reduced and ultimately eliminated. Aggressively promoting commercial tree plantations on ‘degraded forest land’ is viewed as a primary mechanism to promote this modernising vision. In Ban Pak Veng, Japan’s Oji Paper, which bought out the original concession holder (BGA Forestry), began bulldozing village ‘degraded’ agro-forests in 2005.

The people of Ban Pak Veng are shown in this report as negotiating through multiple forces of resource enclosure and displacement. They are also active agents of ecological change in their village landscape, although ultimately not under conditions which they control. It is shown how villagers in Pak Veng can also be forced to directly undermine their own environment in attempts to fend off their own looming impoverishment, for example through cutting down their own forest-lands on behalf of the plantation company.

The complex interdependencies between rural people in Laos, and their forests and rivers, are highlighted throughout the report.

It is the unambiguous conclusion that, contrary to their obligations, neither THPC nor Oji-LPFL is adequately addressing their environmental externalities in Hinboun District.

In Ban Pak Veng, the majority of village young people are now voting with their feet- leaving the village for (risky and illegal) migrant wage labour employment opportunities across the Mekong River in Thailand. Adding to the complex story of village changes and connections, the remittances from these young people are shown in Ban Pak Veng as being re-invested back into smallholder agricultural improvements- for example into plots of smallholder para-rubber. Ironically, it is shown how Pak Veng villagers are very capable of incorporating new technologies and engaging with new market opportunities which present themselves, while it is the actions of highly profitable, extractive resource companies which are impoverishing farmer capabilities, and radically undermining local ecologies.

The Government of Laos is, in many instances, taking legitimate steps to engage with the global economic opportunities in an effort to promote much-needed rural development and poverty reduction. Rural people in Laos do not deserve uncompensated and unmitigated displacements at the hands of resource corporations and program managers from the Asian Development Bank, but access to appropriate, beneficial, and progressive options for community development.