The Lao Alternative
by Greg Bryant
If international commerce suddenly collapsed, people in Laos would barely notice. The population is scattered about the countryside in small villages that provide their own food. Except for very occasional cheap goods that float into their economy from abroad, they provide for all of their needs. They are dependent on the forests, mountains and lowlands around them. The majority lives in this natural economy, and they live reasonably well.
They farm without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, mainly because they cannot afford them. Their per capita cash income is the lowest in Asia, but this hardly reflects their quality of life. Families own all the land they farm on, enough to feed themselves. Land is evenly distributed through ancient social arrangements, with little interference from the government. A healthy barter exists among neighboring villages that are independent, basically self-reliant, and run by their inhabitants in a fair, participatory manner.
Thailand and France, the colonial rulers of Laos, were never able to force a majority of the Lao to produce exports. This is extraordinary today, most of the world's peoples live in countries that operate much like colonies. Typically, families are forced to give over farmland to the production of export commodities and luxury crops for wealthier nations. Ecological and cultural destruction, urban migration, malnutrition and starvation are the consequences. Indigenous ethnic groups and their traditional cultures sometimes hang on in the margins of these countries, but in Laos they make up the entire nation. Why is Laos different?
Indochinese countries have long fought for their independence. Major powers covet their strategic location on the ocean trade routes between India and China. Laos, however, is landlocked, making its neighbors Thailand, Vietnam and Kampuchea much more attractive to predators. The mountains surrounding Laos are nearly impassable, and the Mekong river, where it flows out of Laos, is filled with rapids. The high expense of shipping from the region left ancient patterns of subsistence farming, along with a rather poor, weak nobility, undisturbed by the world market. Well, nearly undisturbed.
The Western Legacy
Commercial powers have sought political control of Laos for centuries, and the Lao suffered heavily from attempts that peaked only a few decades ago. The deep involvement of the United States in Indochina began while supporting French colonialism against Vietnam's war for independence. The US expanded the conflict to include military action against the peoples of Laos and Kampuchea, and during the 1960's and 1970's funded the dropping of some 3 million tons of explosives on Laos. Per capita, this is the heaviest bombing of any nation in history. Tens of thousands of civilians died. The countryside is pocked with bomb craters, and hundreds of villagers still die every year from Honeywell Corporation's unexploded impact mines, 'bombies', designed specifically for unsuspecting civilians.
This was the ultimate expression of Western Civilization's frustration with Indochinese rebellion. When at last Western imperialism was kicked out, in 1975, Western-derived socialism was established by the new leaders of Laos as a hopeful alternative.
Socialism is often an improvement over colonialism; Laos, however, was never thoroughly colonized. To this day the economy runs by household-level, decentralized subsistence agriculture. In contrast, modern Asian communism is based on a centralized, industrialized version of self-sufficiency: the Chinese answer to the Soviet push for internationalist interdependence. In post-war Laos, Mahatma Gandhi's village democracies were about to meet Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward. The conflict between natural economy and centralized economy could have been a disaster.
However, the revolutionary leaders of Laos found central planning unworkable. They had no money. With few resources and no colonial infrastructure, they could not possibly centralize a sparse, rural population of some sixty different ethnic groups.
Revolutionary leaders instead spent most of their energy helping to get the people back on their feet. Then they tried to organize people into cooperatives. But again, this is a regressive strategy in a country that already has a long established, cooperative social structure.
The social organization of villages works far better than the ideal cooperative, not surprising since classical Marxist cooperatives derive from crude accounts of village life written by 19th century European anthropologists. At the turn of the century, socialist activists thought cooperative groups should be like the organizations and unions they were familiar with in industrialized Europe. When early Soviet leaders discovered real villages on Soviet territory, they did not recognize their cooperative nature. Villagers were uncooperative to collectivization, leading some to suspect that intervillage barter was incipient commercial capitalism. This was a misjudgment, since the families produced mostly for their own needs and not for trade.
Lao villages also rejected cooperatives and stuck to the lifestyle they already knew. If the government had more time and money, and if the Lao were not so cautious culturally, they might have coerced people into collectives. But the government was impoverished, so collectivization was barely more than a suggestion.
Detailed central planning of those few resources available to the government has not worked well. Individual needs and sometimes entire villages were overlooked in plans. It is lucky that they were mostly self-reliant. The government responded that it only needed to learn how to plan better.
Small aid organizations interacting directly with villages had to make room for themselves within these struggling state plans. The plans ranged from reconstruction and provincial self-sufficiency to attempts to copy the rather modest Vietnamese model for industrial and agricultural socialism. These plans never worked as expected, at the very least due to meagre resources, and a frustrated segment of the government eventually turned to world aid organizations. Since 1986, foreign aid experts have been coming into the country with big development money, but the country still does not have anywhere near the financial resources for the planners or materials needed to run a statist economy. Even more recently, the government has entirely moved away from economic controls.
Capitalism and socialism have both failed to gain real control over daily life in Laos. This rejection of any kind of centralized, modern Nation State is a hallmark of the region. Without central control, many basic structures that Westerners expect to see have no place in Laos.
For example, there is no national legal system, and only one prison in the whole country. Typically, judicial systems arise to support trade and large scale ownership, often for noble classes. The further away people live from what they own, the less legitimate are their claims to ownership, so a rigid system of enforcement becomes a necessity for powerful owners. This never emerged in Laos the nobility were not very powerful because the resources of their domains were too limited. They could not afford to build a system to support distant claims. In the absence of a formal judiciary, people in a village decide for themselves what ownership means.
The socialist government is the biggest organization in the country, yet many peasants think of it as a kind of intervillage support league. In Laos, independence can be found at many political levels and in situations that are unheard of in most countries. For example, provinces independently negotiate across national borders, and for the most part are required to finance their own services. But real control still lies in the village.
In the absence of a formal judiciary, people decide for themselves what ownership means.
The Natural Economy
To look at the sparse, scattered independent villages of Laos today is to see what life without high-level political or economic domination might be like. The biggest worries in a natural economy are variations in the weather. These villages experience almost no crime, and actually define for themselves what is criminal. They have a highly developed sense of fairness and community. Inflation is of little concern, since few use cash. Most villages are not subject to direct taxation. There are no powerful elites. Everyone works hard, eats adequately, and gets along well together.
Since they have little experience with domination, they are not very good at following orders. Because they have never been squeezed hard by Lords or Merchants, they tend to work at a steady pace, rather than at the ulcerous speeds demanded in many other Asian cultures.
In a typical village in Laos up to a hundred families live on high ground and farm the surrounding lowlands. No one is in charge although sometimes there is a village elder who helps make decisions, and who must work just as hard as everyone else. The women work longer hours than the men, but there is no misogynist crime, objectification or patriarchy. Relations among the villagers may seem strikingly egalitarian, but this is not due to explicit ideology. It can be traced to a simple village ethic: the right to survival.
For the Lao, no one's survival should be put at risk by someone else in the community: instability could endanger the survival of the entire village. In a natural economy barely providing sustenance, everyone knows this primary rule, so no one pushes. Older families can sometimes gain influence in a village, but only if the villagers see it as enhancing their chance of survival. Clientage of this sort does not last for long since the environment is not stable. Influence eventually disappears as a family's branches fade, move elsewhere, or experience bad weather.
Despite the excellent relations in a village, many Westerners would not find the life idyllic. The Lao don't read much, even though the socialist government has ensured that most everyone receives a short, basic literacy course. Their localized natural economy never developed reading and writing, often found in larger economies where those skills help to centralize operations. In Thailand, China and Vietnam poor people read a great deal, a benefit that trickled down after hundreds of generations of domination.
As a substitute for literacy the Lao can, when motivated, learn very quickly just by watching. In a subsistence culture this is one way to pass on skills something of a lost art in Modern Civilization.
Another reason behind the reluctance of the Lao to read, though, is the lack of anything to read, or the lack of anything anyone finds important. This is unfortunate since many independent cultures have been destroyed without knowing what was coming. Lao villages are rather isolated, making it difficult for them to enlist international support. They are vulnerable to intervention by governments and development projects supported by commercial systems that care little for natural economies. More thorough literacy must come before developing, say, an internationalist league to assure common security among self-sufficient village democracies.
Literacy is not the only skill needing development. The Lao are not as careful in agriculture as they could be their population has remained low, so they scrape by with a primitive type of rice paddy farming. They do not compost, weed or garden. They plant no forests, and the gravity powered irrigation systems they have used forever are unstable.
They need to make changes because the world will not stay away from Laos forever. Events since 1986 make this even more clear. If their culture is to survive they need to strengthen what they do well. They must create a natural economy that can deal with encroachment, with the inevitable demand for consumer goods, with the forces of trade, and with other than local issues. A few aid workers from some small Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) are working with the Lao to achieve just this.
Literacy must come before, say, an internationalist league to assure common security among self-sufficient village democracies.
Working with those who already know how to help themselves
Teaching Lao farmers how to farm is like teaching crocodiles how to swim. They might do better, but what they do has worked for a very long time.
What they do now is certainly better than what the banks and governments in the Developed World want them to do. The really big aid organizations are part of a system that destroys places like Laos. Most aid organizations and world lending institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, became active in Laos around 1986. Now these groups build oversized roads, bridges, dams and gasoline powered irrigation systems that peasant farmers have no idea how to maintain, and which provide electricity that no one locally can, or may, use. These big projects waste money, foster corruption, and disrupt lifestyles by encouraging consumerism.
A more reasonable approach, taken by the NGO's, is to ask the villagers what improvements they want to see, and to keep projects small, respecting the scale of native technologies and the rate at which native cultures can absorb change. One Australian group is helping to repair existing, traditional gravity fed water systems. These are tiny dams high in the hills that catch rain or springwater, which then runs down flumes and ditches into rice paddies. The Australian project also helps to repair the village social groups that keep these irrigation systems in working order.
Village cooperation plummets during a water shortage. Villagers can't take their frustrations out on the sky, so they take them out on each other instead. Under this kind of social pressure village organizations cannot easily be formed. Compare this with, say, the ease of organizing against governments or corporations during hard times, when victims can direct their frustration towards individuals in those institutions.
The Australian project encourages villages to set up Water Groups when there is plenty of water and everyone is getting along. The village management of irrigation then runs more smoothly through the dry season. The villagers make their own rules, and eventually write them down and post them, promoting both cooperation and literacy.
Some might cringe at introducing explicit rules into this loose, happy social setting, but some rules make village life more fair. The Lao respect each other's right to survive, but when times are tough people will sometimes respond selfishly and try to get more than their share of water, even if they don't need it. Their paddy dikes can be overflowing but they will still take more, and make life difficult for those downstream. If someone's right to survive is immediately threatened, the villagers will normally do something about it. But no one will confront the offender if the damage only shows itself later, at harvest time, when someone might come close to starvation as a result. With rules and sanctions agreed upon, and simple devices to measure water flow, the problems can be dealt with immediately. Lao villagers usually spread bad gossip about the offender, a very effective sanction in a small community.
Respect for survival makes most other crime disappear. Even in villages where there are mentally disturbed ex-refugees or people maimed by bombs, violent crime is just not found. Subsistence farming requires stability, leaving little room for luxuries like violence.
Elitism also seldom survives. There is little access to world trade, and not enough good land to support a strong land-owning class. Any family trying to run a tough feudal dynasty would not eat very well, especially in the highlands.
The American Friends Services Committee (AFSC) has an aid program that fights against a specific kind of elitism: male domination. This is a problem with only a few ethnic groups in Laos. The Women's Project encourages women to speak up and help decide the direction of change in their villages.
Take for example certain upland H'mong villages. Unlike the lowland ethnic Lao, the H'mong raise much livestock and engage in commerce at a level that seriously increases their dependence on economic centers. Much of this began when they were required by French colonialists to increase opium production, creating commercial opium monopolies then managed by the French and later by the United States. The H'mong also suffered severe shocks as a minority used in recent decades as US counterinsurgents and then counterrevolutionaries. All this has helped to create rough tribes that keep their women subservient.
The AFSC Women's Project was only able to make headway into these hardened groups by bluntly pointing out that the tribe would get no aid if the women were not involved. This may seem like manipulative intervention, but it compares very favorably to the type of intervention responsible for these problems in the first place.
The Women's Project was initiated in part because it could rely on the Women's Union one of the most important socialist contributions to Laos. This national group, with membership all the way down to the village level, was created to coordinate disaster relief. The AFSC found these women very interested in helping to improve their villages in good times as well. In order to understand problems the women raised, the aid workers needed to watch village life very carefully, for at least 24 hours, something big aid organizations seldom do. The AFSC then worked with small projects, initiated by the women, meant to reduce their daily labor.
Immediate labor reductions liberate time for villagers to indulge in health and education improvements. The AFSC Women's Project has provided: contraception, a much sought after labor saving technology; nursery pens or creches, so women do not need to carry children everywhere, and so older children can go to school rather than shepherd their siblings; better rice preparation tools; and catchment jars, which reduce the hours spent fetching water.
NGO's in Laos also make indirect contributions to self reliance, such as their support for small, indigenous research centers. In the Laotian capital of Vientiane there is a group of native technicians that designs, builds and brings to the countryside small-scale technologies specially suited to the requests of villagers. This group asks the smaller NGO's to give them contracts to build equipment, such as sturdy water-powered pumps. The organizations see better results this way than when they import equipment: native technicians can design and build technology suited to the region, and they can better train their fellow Lao.
Encouraging native technical competence helps the Lao feel less shy about arguing with foreign aid workers and developers. They can explain how their native technologies are less destructive than those created in the West to make profits for multinational corporations.
The national government impedes this process. Like many large governments, the Lao administration has a paternalistic attitude towards their people, and they refuse to accept that a Laotian can become expert in anything. This is in part jealousy of the independence such recognition gives people. Many talented Lao have for years been unable to advise aid projects. The government has finally granted to some Lao credentials as "foreign experts", implying that there are no native experts. NGO's have tried to deal directly with this problem by picking more project assistants who are native. An NGO's meagre funds go farther when they leave behind skilled workers. These are the benefits of a small budget: no one can become dependent on it, and small changes are less likely to be big mistakes. To have any impact at all, in fact, very small aid organizations have to work themselves out of a job, setting up people who can continue the work without them.
Medicines are always in short supply. Luckily the Lao know much about indigenous plants.
The Native Medicines Project is another encouraging development. Poor health is one of the country's biggest problems, and medicines are always in short supply. Luckily the Lao know much about the properties of indigenous plants, and this expertise could make villages self-reliant in medicines. The project workers index native cures, after they lure secrets away from tribal doctors. Project chemists and doctors find the active ingredients, hold clinical trials to determine which ones are effective, and then pass this information back to all the villages they can. The plants then make their rounds through normal intervillage exchanges among farmers.
In a health project initiated by a French NGO, larger towns construct artificial limbs and crutches out of materials they grow themselves, then trade them to neighboring villages. Former invalids become productive members of their communities again. These are all wonderful and imaginative programs, but what self-reliance projects should the NGO's embark on next?
A Plan to Strengthen a Natural Economy
Ideally, aid workers would encourage the development of local products from local materials. This opens up discussion in villages as to what is efficient and what is not, and keeps products independent from the global market so communities can barter for them. Villages can then pass techniques around through visits and travelling Buddhist festivals, as they do today. Natural dissemination can be seen at work in the speed that introduced vegetables and medicinal plants move from community to community.
The next stage of sustainable aid work must include longer term labor saving ideas gardening to reduce foraging time; planting fast-growing trees so one day out of four isn't spent gathering firewood; composting, to increase food yields; planting a diversity of crops to provide better nourishment; planting crops, for sale or trade, that grow well on land too poor for other uses; using the Azolla fern as a nitrogen fertilizer in rice paddies, as the Chinese have for centuries; and supporting education.
Education is difficult to promote anywhere. But the current Lao curriculum of literacy, numeracy, health information and revolutionary politics particularly strikes many villagers as irrelevant. Relevance can be developed: convince farmers to write down what they know for the local children's curriculum; entice people to learn numerical skills so they can better arrange their crops and make barter arrangements with the next village; urge villagers to write contracts for each other regarding issues like water distribution; and encourage them to act as teachers themselves, instead of just giving them poorly trained ones.
Buddhists priests have played a role in education, adding relevance for some Lao. Priests are registered with the state, so the kind of education they are involved with is of the top-down kind. This state-directed education is not effective both because of the irrelevant curriculum and the nation's lack of money for schools. This is why the encouragement of local self-education is so crucial it may be the only method that works.
Eventually, peasant farmers must learn that they are representatives of an unusually resilient economic model. They must know how to deal with the encroachment of capital, and be able to recognize foreign intervening strategies. Without such understanding there could be great strife again in Laos within a few decades.
The Women's Union has helped some Lao women to see the great strengths in their natural economy. It sponsored a group of Laotian women on a visit to the Philippines, and later invited a Philippines women's group to Laos. The Lao women were shocked and overwhelmed to see the problems in the Philippines few people have land so almost everyone must work on plantations or migrate to cities, where they prostitute themselves or work in factories for substandard wages. The Philippine demand for land redistribution was a new political concept to the Lao. But the Philippine women were equally confused when they came to Laos. They could not believe that everyone was able to feed themselves, have their own land and keep a roof over their heads. They wanted to see the homeless and the urban poor. But Laos has no cities to speak of let alone urban poor.
One's Natural Economy can be understood as one strengthens it, by creating the tools for education out of local materials. Black dyes now sometimes used for clothing could be used for black boards and writing ink. Reeds could be used as pens. Traditional palm leaf and bamboo paper could be grown according to need in each village, eliminating paper import costs. Small, locally designed planing mills could take the heavy labor out of creating flat wooden blackboards. Small chalk stick presses are needed so teachers can have a ready supply from native chalk. Hardwood trees must be planted to be harvested as strong materials for making machines like chalk presses and planing mills.
These are just the technologies needed to promote writing. Developing their like will give villagers more of a feeling that the system of education belongs to them. They must feel it is worth putting energy into, since education cannot be supported by the government there is no money for it. Many of these technologies can be developed at the provincial level by Lao research and distribution centers like the one in Vientiane.
Unfortunately, there are too few Lao technicians and only so many Lao teachers who can promote this kind of work. And the big aid organizations almost never fund projects requiring such care, although they often admire them. More native teachers would eventually emerge if the program developed relevance to village life.
But the pace of this kind of program, if done properly, might be too slow. Natural technologies often do not develop soon enough to keep people from becoming addicted to advanced world-market technologies. In one case, the women's project tried to introduce bicycle powered rice mills, but the women insisted on small gasoline powered ones they had seen in larger towns. Another project created sturdier roofs from cement laced with vegetable fibers. Now the price of both gasoline and cement have soared and the villagers are feeling the pressure.
There are too few deeply integrated, sustainable aid projects in Laos. Most aid projects hasten cultural dissolution. For example, the World Bank loaned Laos the money to create an expensive dam to produce electricity to sell to Thailand. Money earned from the dam is now used exclusively to pay some of the interest on the loan. In addition to building the dam, the World Bank project also relocated the villages in the way of Progress and helped to reestablish their subsistence agriculture. The relocation was done on a tiny budget which might be why it worked tolerably well. The World Bank would never consider doing efficient, small scale work with the money it allocated for the dam itself. The Bank's role is to encourage national dependence on global finance.
Even with the World Bank's "help", Laos cannot become another Philippines the varied geography and the expense of exporting goods will limit the depth of change. But Laos could return to much the way it was before socialism.
The pre-1975 government was corrupt and completely supported by foreign aid. When this aid was withdrawn in 1975, the new government had no choice but to try to create food self-sufficiency in the section of lowland Laos, around Vientiane, that had become dependent. They encouraged agricultural alternatives to dependence on expensive foreign petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. In a few years self-reliance returned to these areas.
The new government started a literacy program that was internationally respected, and their development of international awareness was needed for a people trying to understand why the old government had tried to destroy them. A program was begun to make the larger towns self-reliant in textiles, a shuttle-loom in every provincial capital. This effort was derailed when international trade opened up before the completion of the project; now in the bigger towns people often prefer the new, inexpensive imported goods from places like the Philippines.
The government's obsession with centralization keeps it from seeing the advantages of a more robust self-reliance at the village level, such as village self-education. The government theoretically wants to eventually dismantle family self-reliance because it is viewed as inefficient, not adding to foreign trade. The insensitivity of the larger aid projects lends credibility and money to the dismantling of Laos' natural economy.
The West has encouraged Laos to go into debt to modernize. Governments that go into development debt are so financially strapped that they pull back resources from ministries like education and health. These are then heavily funded and influenced by western aid agencies, usually to the benefit of opportunists in the government.
Laos had a very idealistic leadership until very recently. Some of the leaders' ideas were destructive in Laos, such as agricultural cooperatives. But the revolutionary leaders genuinely wanted to help their people, and when the wholescale bombardment of Indochina ended in 1975, the Lao needed help. The new government's models were not so good, but their hearts were in the right place.
Things have changed since 1986 with the coming of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) version of glasnost. Politicians from the old, pre-1975 leadership have gradually come back to Laos, and with western money are quietly buying their way back into power. Every one of the big aid programs or loans seems to end up fostering opportunism, shifting concern away from majority needs, and establishing channels for US influence. These have always been the goals of US policy.
The United States has maintained an embassy in Vientiane under socialism, unusual among Indochinese allies of Vietnam: a remnant of a left-right split in the politics of the royal family that gave the new government some legitimacy among diplomats. But the US never offered reparations or aid to civilians they had bombed. The political dealings with Laos were invariably insensitive. In a nation struggling to keep people alive, with a devastated countryside, with anti-personnel mines killing villagers, with a hostile government in Thailand, the US embassy wanted the Lao government to spend precious resources locating the bodies of US pilots who had been shot down during the war. This kind of myopic racism characterized much of the US contact with Laos after 1975.
In a bit of cold war propaganda, the US State Department, around 1980, claimed that some form of biological or chemical genocide was being practiced by the Lao PDR against highland minorities. The "Yellow Rain" episode was a typical CIA operation fake reports, supposed victims on the CIA payroll, press releases announcing hundreds of deaths by yellow mist. Years later, chemists, biologists, anthropologists and aid workers confirm that the phenomenon is harmless bee feces dropped regularly by bee swarms in tropical mountain forests. The bees leave their hives as a swarm when they are overheating, and dump out the heat stored in their waste. Settled upland villagers knew the insects were responsible for the phenomenon, but no one from the mainstream World press ever interviewed them.
Native agents who helped the CIA with the Yellow Rain story were largely the same individuals who helped them during the war in counterinsurgency and in delivering opium from the Golden Triangle, a region at the intersection of Laos, Burma and Thailand. A new Hollywood movie, Air America, recognizes for the first time in mainstream popular culture the US involvement in the Indochinese opium trade. The opium shipments were directed by the same US covert operations group that later ran the Iran-contra operation, where they and their allies similarly reaped quick profits from the Latin American cocaine trade.
During the war, these US proxies were created without regard to the communities they tore apart. The proxies were then used against the civilian population. Now, the same group, with apparent US blessing, is using opium money to fight the Lao PDR. An odd situation: the US is fighting Laos at the same time it maintains good relations with the country. This does not seem contradictory to the people making policy it is a common strategy for increasing a country's dependence. The strategy is simple: loan a country money to fight against proxy forces, and the government will be pushed further into western debt. This favors politicians inside the target country who are unconcerned about subsequent Western exploitation.
The most recent US attack on village self-reliance comes in the guise of a congressional appropriation to fight opium traffic in Laos. The operation is a complete scam at the expense of Lao peasants and US taxpayers. The $8.7 million over 6 years is supposed to help the people of an extremely remote, self-sufficient region to grow new crops as export substitutes for opium. But this region isn't actually growing opium for export. The money will do great harm, damaging agricultural patterns in the area with some token aid effort, and putting cash in the pockets of opportunists in Vientiane.
Remote villages are often damaged by aid projects, but when the government goes into debt to pay for Western development, the whole country feels the strain. There are no exports to speak of, so the government cuts down forests or dams rivers to generate electricity to sell to Thailand. As the debt accumulates it is easier to pull the government in the political directions the foreign interests prefer: the new leaders in the Lao PDR now do not even call their economic policy socialist. Already, the more principled provincial representatives are resigning as the government retreats from humane independence towards corrupt dependence.
A sure sign of trouble: the Peace Corps will be going to Laos soon. Despite the good intentions of Corps workers, Peace Corps work represents a preliminary gesture to the opening of dependent relations with the US (one Peace Corps program teaches English to natives). Close behind the Peace Corps will be heavy USAID programs like the ones that nearly annihilated Lao independence from the 1950's through 1975. Many Lao peasants are becoming aware of this trend their government is acting with diminishing concern and they are very angry. They are still recovering from the last time around.
What can be done?
US citizens can write to Congress to stop wasteful aid to Laos. The country cannot absorb it. Additionally, small scale aid workers are now having a harder time starting sustainable projects around government officials that prefer siphoning off money from big aid projects.
Western-style tourism to Laos must be prevented. Shift the Lao towards tourism and their independence will be destroyed as surely as by any other export industry.
Aid workers from NGO's are networking like mad to promote small-scale integrated projects in Laos. These are the only kind that do any good. They need funding. Send money to the NGO's on these pages, earmarked for small, appropriate, deeply integrated projects in Laos.
Author's note: This article would have been impossible without the help of Roger Rumpf, Jacquelyn Chagnon, Don Luce, and Carol and Randy Ireson. These photos were provided by them. [Addendum: Roger Rumpf died in 2013.]
Above: Harrowing rice paddies in the early summer. Below: Threshing rice under the house. Both in Vientiane province.
Above: Planting rice seedlings. Below: Harvesting rice.
Above: Khmu girl carrying water in bamboo cylinders. Below: Lao Lue woman washing mushrooms foraged in the early morning. Luang Prabang province.
Above: Hmong girl foraging for hazelnuts in the mountains. Below: A Lao rice-cookie.
Above: Lao Lue woman spinning cotton.
Below: Spinning by hand.
Above: Lao Lue woman dying cotton with indigo. The materials are all grown without pesticides. Below: A Lao Lue loom.
Above: Building a house in Xieng Kouang province.
Below: Women's project meeting.
Above: Since the revolution, Buddhist monks have maintained their own temples. Below: Village school.
Above: A US-made "bombie". Each year many children are killed when they find and play with these. Below: A young H'mong woman just after her husband was killed by an old, hidden bombie. He hit it with a hoe while farming ... simply providing shovels to these farmers helps to reduce these accidents significantly.
Above: Elephant hauls wood to a modern saw. Most elephants were driven away by bombing during the war. Below: H'mong women harvesting opium. Xieng Khouang province.