The single-track dirt road to Om Loung village passes the dam across the River Ou and winds upstream, skirting its swollen waters. The road is built by the Chinese company that constructed the dam – and six others along the Ou – under a bilateral Chinese-Lao PDR agreement. One of the conditions was the relocation of the villages that were flooded following dam construction, plus the establishment of permanent road access for them.
Om Loung, when we reach it, is not a picturesque collection of wooden houses on stilts as seen in some other places in Northern Laos. It is instead two neat lines of concrete homes with outside water taps, toilets, and electricity. A small primary school and health center complete the settlement. Do the villagers miss their old homes? “No,” says villager Lee Daobounpheng. “Of course, I have good memories of the old village – it was the place I was born. But life is so much more comfortable now. Before we had to walk a long way to fetch drinking water, we had no toilets, there was no electricity, and we could only go to market seasonally by boat.”
Resettlement is a controversial topic, but the oft-negative reports regarding the people concerned seem not, in this case, to be borne out by reality. Furthermore, the road, completed in 2019, has given Om Loung villagers regular access to markets and thus created new livelihood opportunities. This is welcome, as it is increasingly difficult for them to practice their traditional system of slash and burn agriculture for upland rice, supplemented by fishing and the gathering of various forest products for home consumption.
Om Loung is one of 21 villages in Phongsaly Province that is being assisted by the project PHOLIN. Not all of these villages are relocated, but they are all influenced by recent economic developments. PHOLIN aims to improve the livelihoods of rural communities through enhanced income from non-timber forest products (NTFPs) at the same time as promoting sustainable natural resource management. The project is implemented by Helvetas with funds from the Happel Foundation, Laguna Foundation and other donors.
Access to markets
There is strong and growing commercial demand in Phongsaly Province for NTFPs – including cardamom (especially Amomum xanthoides), red mushrooms (Russula spp), bamboo shoots, benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis), broom grass and galangal. Most of this demand stems from China, especially for cardamom (used in traditional medicine) and red mushrooms (a prized delicacy), although some demand is also local. In a visit later to an NTFP trader based in the nearby district of Bountai, a 25-ton lorry loaded with cardamom ready for departure to China is evidence of demand. The trader is exporting 125 tons of cardamom this year. While he is a significant player, he is certainly not the only trader operating in the province. Om Loung cardamom, he tells us, especially the prized Kuang Tung variety, is known to be good quality.
Village land zonation
The recently revised Forest Law (2020) of Laos PDR identifies three main legal categories of forest: protected forest, conservation forest, and production forest. Conservation forest is of particular interest for NTFP collectors as within it they can cultivate and harvest a variety of products provided any existing forest is not felled. PHOLIN has supported the process of zoning the village territory, conducted jointly by the villagers and local authorities, notably the District Agriculture and Forest Office. Some land is allocated for agriculture, but it is more limited than in the past. Much of Om Loung’s territory (totaling just over 1,200 ha) is conservation forest, different areas of which have been allocated, according to suitability, for different NTFPs. Some is managed communally; some is divided into plots on which individual households have planted commercially valuable species.
Lee Daobounpheng guides us along a stream to her cardamom plot, the plants growing luxuriantly beneath a dense forest canopy. On the way she lops bamboo shoots for lunch. The path turns upwards into drier areas of Chestnut – Oak (Castanopsis – Quercus spp.) forest, known locally as Maikor. Lee comments:
“Red mushrooms only grow in Maikor forest – everyone knows that, and no-one is allowed to fell a single tree…. In the red mushroom season, we hardly sleep! We come to the forest after supper and stay the night. It’s difficult to find the mushrooms as they are hidden under the leaves on the forest floor. We harvest the good ones, but any damaged mushrooms we scatter in other Maikor areas to spread them. This works – next year we find mushrooms in such areas.”
Red mushroom collection is a nice example of conservation and livelihood objectives meeting – facilitated by the strong market demand. Villagers easily earn the equivalent of USD 60 for 1kg of dried red mushrooms – a significant sum locally. Nevertheless, border difficulties created by the Covid pandemic have made them highly aware of their dependence on Chinese markets.
Market systems development
A common request from villagers is for assistance in finding alternative markets. This is an aspect on which PHOLIN is working, taking a market systems development approach. The most important NTFP value chains are being analyzed to identify the constraints, and how they might be overcome to the benefit of producers. A first step in each village is the facilitation of producer user groups to have greater bargaining power with traders. In Om Loung, PHOLIN has also contributed materials to the construction of a collection center – the villagers providing their labor and timber – at which products can be pooled and dried before sale. There is still much to do, but the project is only in its second year of field operations.
Sustainable forest use and biodiversity conservation
Dam construction and the flooding of river valleys has, of course, a major impact on ecosystems and their biodiversity. For the people concerned, the land that is left must support their livelihood. Any use of a forest has some impact on its biodiversity – whether minor (as in the harvesting of red mushrooms) or somewhat more significant (such as the active planting of cardamom). The issue of “sustainable use” versus complete protection is likely to be much debated at COP15 in early December this year, when the new, post 2020 framework for the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity is to be thrashed out. The CBD defines sustainable use as “the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations.” Yet compromises are often needed between conservation and forest-based livelihoods. In populated areas of Phongsaly, biodiversity is best conserved through NTFP production in still forested areas. The alternative is that the land will be converted to completely different uses.