In Laos, where 4.13 million of the nation’s 6.2 million inhabitants live in rural areas, the links to the land are visible in every sphere of life. From sourcing food to earning an income, mastering a sustainable and productive relationship with the earth is a necessity more than it is a luxury, like the “organic” food explosion that has swept the West in the past few decades. These earthy ties also extend to traditional Laotian culture and crafts, like bamboo, rattan and natural dyed textiles.
Armed with this understanding, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has been engaged in Laos where it has helped jumpstart and run rural development programs since 1980. The goal is simple: to train the nation’s green thumbs to grow nutrient rich crops – feeding themselves and society – and build a robust economy in the process. In celebration of the progress that has been made in the country through this effort, IFAD has just released Laos: A Rural Perspective, a book of photographs snapped by internationally renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist G.M.B. Akash, who visited the verdant countryside provinces of Attapeu, Champasak and Luang Prabang to document locals at work (and play) in 2012.
Among those whose lives have been touched by IFAD’s programs are Ucn, a weaver and member of the Taliang Natural Dyes Women’s Group, which is working to breathe fresh life into traditional dyeing techniques; Koun, who raises chickens for protein and profit; Khunmani, a vegetable farmer with an eye on her community, and many more.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
An exhibition of images shot by Akash in Laos are on display at the T’Shop Lai Gallery and select cafes and eateries throughout the Laotian capital until October 9. In a statement on the exhibition and book launch, Dina said, “We hope the photographs will provoke thought and discussion regarding rural development in Laos. We anticipate that deeper reflection on the role of rural people in bringing about change will lead to greater partnership, community level empowerment and the promotion of diverse livelihoods.”
Indeed, “diverse” is the key word. Laotian farmers are growing everything from maize, coffee, sugarcane, groundnut and sesame; to herding livestock like pigs, cattle and buffalo. And of course, rice paddies can be seen in abundance throughout the landlocked tropical country. Wild tea, ginger, galangal and cardamom, among others, are other significant crops for the nation’s agriculturists.
Tourism – particularly the ecologically conscious variety – is another potential cash cow for rural Laos. “IFAD's work is about providing opportunities for rural people to improve their lives, and the lives of their children,” IFAD Country Manager for Laos, Stefania Dina, told The Diplomat. If done right, ecotourism could provide incomes to several groups (local jobs, income generation, etc.). Laos is already an eco-tourism destination and the Asian Development Bank has a program to support the Government on this as well as many NGOs.”
According to an IFAD report titled Investing in the Rural Poor, agriculture accounted for approximately $2.16 billion worth of Laos’ total GDP of $7.49 billion in 2010. Yet, 1.36 million rural Laotians lived below the poverty line as of 2005. Further, among secondary school aged children, only 33 percent of female and 39 percent of male students were enrolled. As of 2005, the literacy rate stood at 72.7 percent for Laotians above the age of 15. And for those hoping to launch entrepreneurial ventures in the country, its ranking in terms of ease of doing business stood at 167 of 183 countries worldwide as of 2010, climbing slightly to 163 the following year.
But there is good news. According to IFAD’s report Enabling poor rural people to overcome poverty in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the nation’s proportion of poor people dropped from 39 percent in the mid-1990s to 27.6 percent in 2010. With this track record, the report calls Laos one of the world’s 10 “top movers” in the realm of human development over the last two decades. Those most vulnerable to poverty live in areas that are prone to natural disasters. More can be read about IFAD’s projects aimed at combatting these challenges here.