3/8/2007 to 3/12/2007 | Laos

Phongsaly: Deforestation

Phongsali, Laos

pdf version of this post with pictures

The most Northeastern region of Laos which sticks up in to southern border of China like a thumb is known as Phongsaly.  This mountainous, sparsely populated region of Laos is among the most remote in the country and a melting pot of cultures.  Chinese, Lao, and a multitude of tribal languages are all spoken here.  My first stop after a tiring 12 hour bus ride down a mostly dirt and very dust road was the provincial capital of the same name, Phongsaly.  Our particular journey in retrospect was actually not that bad, I subsequently would learn that two days later the bus on that same route took 18 hours to reach its destination after getting into an accident on the dusty one lane road.

As is the case with most places in Laos, the attraction is not so much the city but the surrounding countryside and villages.  I had met a French Canadian from Quebec on the bus into town; he was looking to do a trek in the surrounding countryside.  Since splitting the cost made it fairly cheap and I had already forgotten how tired I was after the last 3-day trek, I enlisted for another.   Our guide, Toot’s regular job was with the office of science and technology.  Which, from what I could gather, was and educational outreach program run by the government.  It is also responsible for educating people about the environment, to limited success it would seem.

One of Phongsaly’s greats assets is its wealth of forests (soon to be was), up until now spared by the relatively sparse population in the area.  We had not walked more than 45 minutes when the valley began to echo with popping sounds similar to that of firecrackers I became so familiar with over the New Year’s celebration in China.  These were not blasts of celebration, but rather the sounds of bamboo exploding in fire, noises I would learn were synonyms with slash and burn agriculture in the region.  Rounding a bend in the path, flames leaped from the hillside ahead of us.  The villagers need land to cultivate rice so they cut down the forest, let the wood and brush dry out and burn it; classic slash and burn agriculture.   However the usefulness of the ash rich soil is short lived, mountainous terrain means that the soil erodes quickly from steep slopes rendering it useless for cultivation in just a few years, and more land must be claimed.  This cycle as been amplified by the governments crack down on opium production.  While a few years ago villages could get a source of cash from growing opium, now they have only their livestock sales to raise the revenue required to buy metal roofs, flashlights, generators, and other commercially obtained comforts.  China is pushing to introduce rubber tree plantations of the type seen all over the southern Xishwangbanna region of China.  A region which I traveled through previously, and which I can attest is almost completely devoid of forest except in a few protected areas.  More area is being cleared to plant rubber trees at the “well intentioned” behest of the Chinese.  Wood from the large trees old growth trees, cut to make room for the rubber, finds its way on to trucks heading down the Chinese built well paved road to China.  Laos and especially the inhabitants of the Phongsaly region find themselves at the bottom of a chain of exploitation.  Western nations exploit the cheap labor in China to produce low cost manufactured goods, China running through its own raw materials to quench the consumption, looks to neighboring countries like Laos to make up the difference.  It’s not an easy problem to solve and it’s in everyone’s immediate interest keep the chain going.  It’s hard to tell the villagers, who have so little, that while there may be short term gain it will and is leading to future loss that can not be recovered.

The climate and more importantly the water supply appears to already be showing symptoms of the rapid deforestation.  The last couple years Toot said have had fewer and fewer days of rain.  The water supply is dwindling to the point where as of a few weeks ago the city which gets power from a hydroelectric damn began only production power from 6 to 10 in the morning and 6 to 10 at night.  In addition, without the forest to hold in the moisture, Phongsaly’s once famously cooler climate is growing warmer.  When I mentioned in Namtha that I was going to Phongsaly to one of the restaurant owners he said its cold up there and motioned a shiver.  In reality Namtha may have been cooler than Phongsaly, or at the least comparable in temperature. Throughout the trek while there were areas of forest it seems we were either one step ahead or in many case one step behind the axes and blades of the villagers. In the first village we stayed at, a Pouh Noi village, as we arrive I was puzzled by the kids that were sitting atop the roofs. It became clear that the village was about to burn a nearby section of forest and they were all on the roofs to make sure no wayward hot ashes lit there thatch roofs on fire.  Short term remedies for the fire’s most immediate threat, but it’s the long term consequences not so easily quenched with a spray of water that may prove to be the more serious threat to the villagers.

While this area receives a lot more tourists than the area I trekked in Muang Long, it is still enough where we were some what of a novelty.  The kids were very photo shy at first but after a couple of brave ones got to see themselves in on the screen all the kids were clamoring for photo.  No such luck in convincing the Akha in the second village we stayed at who were very shy in all respects.  The kids would stair at us from behind houses and doorways and squeal and hide when we looked back.  The Akha in this area are from a different tribe than those I had  seen in Muang Long and Muang Sing.  They wear a type of different dress which includes a long chain that hangs from their headdress.   On more serious and sad note, the man’s house we stayed at had a 2 year old who had some sort of stomach infection that had been going on for 15 days and had not eaten anything in the last four days.  Despite the seemingly dire straight of the child the family refused to take the baby to a hospital because they have their own beliefs.  It was a sad and helpless feeling to see this poor child barely conscious, knowing that the child is close to death, and only being able to observe and do nothing.

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