In the upland areas surrounding the Nam Khang river – tributary of the Nam Ou, in the northernmost part of Phongsaly province in Laos, live Akha and Lolo families for generations. In the floor of the narrow forest valleys, people are cultivating rice in paddies. Soil is still ploughed thanks to animal traction. On the heights, families are practicing rice in shifting cultivation intercropped with leguminous, cucurbits and vegetables. The evergreen forest allows to complete the daily food needs: bamboo shoots, ferns, tubers. Agricultural activities rhythm each day: slashing trees in the bush fallows, planting rice, collecting firewood, uprooting manioc. Rice production can vary from one year to another. Droughts occur now almost each season, affecting production without giving time to recover from it.
Collecting forest products, mainly red mushrooms, cardamom and wild cassava, is the main source of revenue for the families. To find additional cash, women and men are used to cross the Chinese border to sell their workforce in banana or rubber plantations. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has prevented all travel and therefore off-farm income. The absence of Chinese traders has also lowered drastically commodities prices, the cardamom kilo being sold 10,000 kip instead of 45,000 kip the previous year. With the new road completed this year and connecting the villages to the main district road, farmers are expecting new income opportunities via contract-farming, notably to produce corn or Job’s tears. Forest is a core resource for food providing aromatic plants and fruits but also wild meat as hunting is a key activity for farmers. But abundance of the wildlife is today decreasing drastically according to farmers. More and more outsiders are coming from all the district and beyond to track wild animals: macaque, Muntjac, deer, slow Loris, wild cat, etc.
Electricity grid should come soon. Meanwhile, the wealthiest families buy small Chinese solar panels to charge their mobile phones and light one or two bulbs at night. Access to water is an issue: scarcity during the dry season and now, even during the rainy season.
The Nam Khang river runs north to south, in parallel to the Nam Ou along all the Nyot Ou district before flowing together. The construction of the most upstream dam of the Nam Ou cascade hydropower project, located not far from the confluence of the two rivers, will cause a rise of the Nam Khang river level and its tributaries. Many paddies set up along the river might be flooded after the start of operation planned for this year.
In many ways, upland people and their territory are at a turning point in terms of land management, providing opportunities but also risks. Today, the ambition of CCL is to work side by side with these families to develop sustainable sources of incomes while strengthening their food security and protecting their natural resources, source of wealth and basis of their socio-cultural systems.