It is fairly rare that one of our board members (trustees) has the opportunity to get out there and see for themselves the great work every one of the TFT family is doing, but when I was travelling in Asia last month with my wife I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend some time with our team in Laos, understanding what we have achieved, how we went about it and what the future holds for LPTP (Luang Prabang Teak Programme).
Katia Brocker wrote a great blog last year – ‘Five years in Laos‘, which pretty much covers the history and context of how the project started and the issues moving forward – the lack of international markets for Laos teak feeding through to the reluctance to continue the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification auditing process on paper, but certainly not in practice.
What I hadn’t realised until I went there, however, is the uncertainty around a reliable export price for legal teak from Laos. The country has many provinces who in turn have many districts and moving teak across these legal entities potentially gives rise to taxes, many of which are inconsistent and therefore unquantifiable. The government claims this should not happen but the practice is different. This has therefore forced the teak farmers to develop the domestic market, so far setting up two furniture workshops and selling their finished chairs & tables to passing traffic. As yet there’s no Ikea or any other furniture retailer in Laos!
From Myanmar to Laos
We travelled into Laos from Myanmar, a fascinating country of over 50m people, massive resources, open to the sea and a time of real political change. Laos by comparison is landlocked and with a population of under 7m. Both countries share the need for heavy investment in their health and education over anything else but the way they go about it I suspect will be different. There is an energy and desire in Myanmar, not dissimilar to Vietnam, whereas in Laos the pace is different. There is a saying – ”the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Laos listen to it grow”.
The challenges the Lao people face, however, are not just of their own making, and we had the opportunity of seeing some of these during our travels. The poorest people in these Asian countries tend to belong to the hill tribes e.g. Hmong & Akha, who originated from Tibet and Southern China and live off mountain rice, small crops and very limited livestock. Two weeks before we were in the region the El Nino effect brought snow and frost for three days, the first time in 100 years, resulting in loss of food and livestock – incredibly serious for these people.
Much of the agricultural produce appears destined for China, whereby swathes of land are rented by Chinese organisations, who bring in intensive farming methods using Lao farmers. Fields in the valleys and slopes on the hills are covered with plantations of rice, tobacco, bananas, pineapples and water melon, much of which is destined for China. There is an increasing Chinese influence in Laos, as in addition to agriculture they are busy building a large number of dams for hydro-electric power. Much has been written about the damming of the mighty Meekong River, but at Luang Prabang it is joined by the much smaller Nam Ou River. We travelled down this river from Northern Laos, but now you have to leave the river to continue your journey by car at Hydro Project 2.
This dam is the second built by the Chinese, but there are seven planned in total on this river that is under 450km long. Communities of diverse ethnic minorities that have relied for generations on the river and surrounding forest resources for food, income and spiritual well-being will be significantly impacted by the dams. In total, close to 90 villages are expected to be displaced.
Impacts on farmers
The first small teak plantation Bounthan took us to runs alongside one of the main roads outside Luang Prabang, where we saw 50m marker posts between the road and plantation to mark where land had been taken by the road developer as part of their contract. What is coming next though will impact on the farmers’ land much more as China is to soon start building a high speed railway between China and Thailand, which goes directly through Luang Prabang Province. It will probably be built over 2-3 years and there will be 11 station in Laos. The contract allows the Chinese to fund the move of 100,000 of their own population to Laos for each station built, so by the end of it there will be a further 1.1m Chinese. I suspect in five years’ time nearly 25% of the population in Laos will be Chinese and of a very different culture. The cultural impact of these investments will alter Laos for ever.
But whilst all this is happening or about to happen in Laos we had a tremendous time with the team, seeing for ourselves the professional documentation that we have produced, wandering amongst these beautiful trees (surprisingly much smaller than the native beech trees I’m surrounded by!), meeting some of the farmer leaders, going to the local (Chinese owned) woodmill and visiting one of the furniture workshops.
Goal of the project
This project set out with a simple goal, to create the first FSC certified teak forest in Laos and this was achieved in four villages. What conspired to halt expansion to other villages was simple economics, the barriers to international markets combined with the costs of FSC audits.
However, what we observed and experienced goes beyond the certification goal. The legacy of our involvement has resulted in the forests being better managed, the skill base of the farmers increased, the commercial capabilities improved, land ownership/rights clarified and most importantly the farmers operating together so the traders pay more.
Bounthan and the team have clearly done a great job in achieving the original goal, but I think if we were looking at this project with the knowledge we have today, our purpose would be different. I really see this as a living example of TFT’s Rurality initiative, way beyond certification and far more important for the Lao farmers and their culture in the context of the impending Chinese “invasion.”