Laos: A resilient people up against the odds

by Betsy Herbert

The people of Laos depend on the Mekong River for food, water, and energy. But the river's health is threatened by dam construction and unexploded bombs from Vietnam war days make the countryside unsafe.

The people of Laos depend on the Mekong River for food, water, and energy. But the river's health is threatened by dam construction and unexploded bombs from Vietnam war days make the countryside unsafe.

Surrounded by China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, Laos has the tragic distinction of being the most bombed country on Earth, as well as one of the 10 poorest. And yet, wherever you go, people are smiling and they are working hard.

I entered Laos (Laos People’s Democratic Republic), a Communist country, from the west through Thailand with a tour group. It wasn’t until we reached its eastern border with Vietnam eight days later that I realized the toll that the Vietnam War had taken on Laos, a country that was never declared as an enemy of the U.S.

So, just as we were leaving Laos, we paid a visit to the COPE center, which serves both as a medical rehabilitation center for victims of late-detonating bombs and as a museum documenting the impacts of the Vietnam War bombing campaign in Laos. According to US Air Force data, from 1964 to 1973, more than 580,000 bombing missions dropped 2 million tons of ordnance all over Laos. Many millions of these bombs failed to detonate at the intended time.

Since only a tiny fraction of these as-yet unexploded bombs have been cleared, most remain in the countryside, where they continue to cause deaths and severe injuries among rural Laotian people today. A 2009 survey shows that this ordnance, including cluster bombs, has killed or maimed 20,000 people since 1973 when the war ended. Since then, there have been more than 100 new casualties each year, many of them children. Laos has suffered more than half of the confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world.

The COPE center trains local staff to manufacture prosthetic limbs for surviving victims of exploding landmines. The center also engages in fundraising to help pay for the costs of rehabilitation of bomb victims.

The COPE visitor center in Vientiane, Laos educates the public about the continuing threat of unexploded ordnance in Laos. COPE also trains local staff to manufacture prosthetic limbs, such as those pictured above, for survivors of exploding bombs.

The COPE visitor center in Vientiane, Laos educates the public about the continuing threat of unexploded ordnance in Laos. COPE also trains local staff to manufacture prosthetic limbs, such as those pictured above, for survivors of exploding bombs.

I wish I had visited COPE when I first entered Laos, so that I would have been more aware of the serious problems of unexploded landmines as I toured other parts of Laos.

Earlier in my trip, before I was aware of this ghastly problem, I was kayaking down a river outside of the Laos capital Vientiane. I thought how lovely it would be to go hiking in the forests above the river. Certainly, after learning of the countless unexploded bombs out there, I would have banished that thought.

Laos is nurturing a recreational tourism industry as much as safety permits. Above, a Lao kayaking guide gets ready to take the group out on the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng.

Laos is nurturing a recreational tourism industry as much as safety permits. Above, a Lao kayaking guide gets ready to take the group out on the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng.

While increasing tourism opportunities in Laos could potentially to help alleviate its extreme poverty, unexploded bombs make it impossible for the country to fully develop this potential.

One avenue of tourism that Laos has developed is riverboat touring. Our group boarded a family-owned touring boat in Pakbeng, Laos, near the Thai border. We cruised two days down the Mekong to the city of Luang Prabang. The Mekong River is the lifeblood of southern China, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, supplying the extensive rice fields of the region with water.

Our tour group cruised the Mekong River for two days in this river boat owned and operated by a Lao family. These boats are a thriving part of the Lao tourist industry.

Our tour group cruised the Mekong River for two days in this river boat owned and operated by a Lao family. These boats are a thriving part of the Lao tourist industry.

Flowing north to south, the river has been extensively dammed in China to develop hydropower resources. These dams are directly upstream from Laos. Because the Mekong River feeds the fertile agricultural valleys downstream in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, the impacts from these Chinese dams are taking an enormous toll on the fisheries and farms of the entire region that depend on stable flows from the Mekong River.

As we started out sailing down the river, the main evidence of the upstream dams we observed were large pieces of trash floating by; for example, a bed frame and mattress was hung up on a rock sticking out of the river. Our guide Tudtu explained that farmers try to remove this trash, and when they do, they see Chinese writing on the items that identifies where the trash comes from.

But our guide said that local people are not as concerned about the trash in the river as they are with the erratic flows of water that are released from the eleven Chinese dams upstream,`with no notification to downstream residents. Farmers and wildlife both have adapted over thousands of years to live within the natural flow regimes of the Mekong River, with much higher flows during the rainy season. But now, with erratic large flows of water coming down stream at unpredictable times, farmers may lose their entire crops overnight with no warning. This situation has forced many farmers to stop farming their fields and to try to move them inland, though getting necessary water to the land becomes more difficult.

Fisheries are also significantly impacted by these unpredictable flows. Unseasonal high flows can scour out fish eggs and wash young fingerling fish out to sea prematurely, when they have little chance of survival.

Dams and hydropower. Laos is currently moving towards a market economy. Since 2000, most of its economic growth has come from huge inflows of foreign direct investment, especially from China and Vietnam. This investment has been directed toward development of dams for hydropower and mining, both of which will exacerbate the environmental problems that Laos is already experiencing.

As we were cruising down the Mekong River, I observed a wide range of recent high water marks on sandy beaches, which served to document these unannounced dam releases. I could see how farmers had been forced to give up farming under such conditions.

Sandy beaches along the Mekong River in Laos show the wide range in high water marks resulting from erratic water releases from dams upstream in China.

Sandy beaches along the Mekong River in Laos show the wide range in high water marks resulting from erratic water releases from dams upstream in China.

We visited a small village along the shores of the Mekong River, a village where local farms used to supply most of the residents’ food. But farmers had been forced to give up their farmland because of the erratic river flows, and people were now trying to adjust by raising more chickens and pigs inland.

People still fish, but their catch has been greatly diminished. Lao farmers struggle to till soil in their traditional plots along the Mekong, soil that is now repeatedly washed away by unannounced dam releases upstream.

But farmers hesitate to work new fields or send their children out to play in the countryside, for fear of bombs lurking just beneath the surface.

Children in the rural areas of Laos are subject to the threat of unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War.

Children in the rural areas of Laos are subject to the threat of unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War.

Deforestation is another serious regional problem in all of the countries within the Mekong River watershed, including Laos. Unsustainable logging of large native trees has decimated native ecosystems. Eucalyptus and teak plantations have been planted to replace native forests. According to a 2007 TERRA briefing paper describes the impacts of current industrial tree farms in the Mekong River watershed:

“Often touted as ‘reforestation’ initiatives, industrial tree plantations introduce endless rows of clones of a usually non-native commercial species, into an area in which little else, be it plant or animal, is permitted to grow. When the land upon which the plantation is established was formerly a biodiversity-rich landscape, the paradox of plantations as natural resource extraction becomes clear.”

The government of Laos is apparently heavily influenced by large private investors, who have benefited from large governmental timber land transfers, which they then turn into eucalyptus and other non-native tree plantations.

Deforestation will hasten climate change, which is already taking its toll on the countries of the Mekong River, with higher temperatures that spell trouble for rice crops. But despite each country’s complaints about the impacts of deforestation and upstream dams built by neighboring countries, all of the countries in the Mekong River watershed are building lots more dams, and plantation forestry is rampant. Each country sees hydropower as a way to curb fossil fuel burning, but each fails to consider the impacts that hydropower and deforestation are already having on farming and fisheries.

On the positive side, the family who ran our riverboat seemed to have a reasonably good life. They live on the boat, they have a good tourist business going, and their children seem to enjoy interacting with tourists.

When we arrived in Luang Prabang, there was a certain bustle to the city that stood in welcome contrast to the struggles of more remote areas.

Happy times exploring Luang Prabang with travel buddies from Australia and China.

Happy times exploring Luang Prabang with travel buddies from Australia and China.

Laos is a Buddhist country, and there is a strong Buddhist presence in Luang Prabang. Every morning just before sunrise, people line the streets of the city waiting to offer sticky rice to a procession of orange-robed Buddhist monks, who walk single-file along the road with their begging bowls extended.

I arose early one morning to participate in this daily ritual. The monks were all male ranging in age from about 9 years to well past 80. Those in our tour group obtained our sticky rice pre-prepared from a street vendor. Dressed for the custom with scarves around our shoulders, we knelt on straw mats on the sidewalks. I did as everyone in line did, dropping a ball of rice into the open basket of each passing monk.

Me waiting at 5:30 a.m. along the main street in Luang Prabang, Laos to make a rice offering to the daily procession of Buddhist monks with their begging bowls.

Me waiting at 5:30 a.m. along the main street in Luang Prabang, Laos to make a rice offering to the daily procession of Buddhist monks with their begging bowls.

A line of Buddhist monks taking offerings of rice along the streets of Luang Prabang.

A line of Buddhist monks taking offerings of rice along the streets of Luang Prabang.

The street markets in Luang Prabang were eye-opening. Raw meat and fish were displayed uncovered in the sun, visited by plenty of flies. There were endless baskets of brilliant red and green chilis, greens, and other fresh vegetables. There were handicrafts, small birds in straw cages, and tables of souvenirs for sale.

Colorful chilis and legumes are everywhere at the street market in Luang Prabang.

Colorful chilis and legumes are everywhere at the street market in Luang Prabang.

One table of souvenirs that caught my eye had a display of rhinoceros horns, mounted on small wooden plaques, as trophies. I double checked to make sure they were real and not made of plastic. They were real.

Rhinoceros horns for sale at the street market in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Rhinoceros horns for sale at the street market in Luang Prabang, Laos.

We came upon a street vendor who advertised Lao style whiskey. Some of the more adventurous members of our group ordered a shot. I am a fan of single-malt whiskeys, and normally have an interest in trying new things. But I had to draw the line here.

Scorpions, snakes, spiders, and cockroaches are all part of the mix in this locally brewed whiskey...notice the outreached hands seeking to imbibe (not mine!)

Scorpions, snakes, spiders, and cockroaches are all part of the mix in this locally brewed whiskey...notice the outreached hands seeking to imbibe (not mine!)

There were 5-gallon glass jugs on display to show what was used as the fermenting base of the whiskey: Snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, and cockroaches. I was sickened at the sight, but was truly amazed when a couple of my cohorts downed a shot. And they were still with us at the end of the tour!

Another disturbing sight for some of our tour members was the ubiquitous presence of small, live, piglets, each wrapped tightly in a sort of basket-weave net. The quivering tails and noses of the piglet stuck out through a hole at each end of the basket. Each morning, the piglets were placed in groups of four or five at every bus stop along the street. Vendors would wait until they were picked up and transported to local restaurants for slaughter.

Live piglets confined to woven baskets are waiting at the public bus stop, where they will be picked up and delivered to local restaurants for slaughter.

Live piglets confined to woven baskets are waiting at the public bus stop, where they will be picked up and delivered to local restaurants for slaughter.

One of my fellow travelers was so shocked by this that she vowed to become a vegetarian right there on the spot. She still hadn’t eaten meat by the end of the tour some two weeks later.

Our last stop in Laos before departing to Vietnam was the capital city of Vientiane. It’s a beautiful city, with a strong French influence both in architecture and food. I was especially appreciative of the wonderful French wine that was available with dinner at a very reasonable price.

This French influence in Vientiane is, of course, explained by the French political control of Laos from 1893 to 1953.

As we left Laos, bound for Hanoi, Vietnam, I came away with a sense of sympathy for the Laotian people and a desire to support work for environmental justice in that country.