A LOWLAND STORY
lowland [ˈləʊlənd] noun an area of land that is fairly flat and not very high above sea level.
Second of a series of two photo essays commissioned by the Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG) in 2022. MRLG and its alliance members work together to protect the tenure rights of smallholder farmers in the Mekong Region.
Koc Ton village is located in the lowlands of Southern Laos, where the valley carved by the Mekong widens up and the steep mountains, that define its upper course, leave space to large stretches of fertile alluvial plains. When I drove to the village, the wet season had just started. The new tarmac road, built a few meters higher from the ground, allowed the rain water to run away in the ditch and eventually in the paddy fields, where farmers ploughed land with two wheeled tractors. The majority of people in the lowlands belong to the Lao-Thai ethno-linguistic family and mostly engage in rainfed paddy rice cultivation.
Nieun and his wife Nie live just outside Koc Ton village, on the other side of a rickety, motorbike sized, wooden bridge, without barriers on the sides. The bridge overpasses a small water stream that ends up in the Xe Ban Fai River a few kilometres to the east. “My father-in-law fell three times in the water” explained Nieun, as I drove through the bridge. “It happened during rainy season; the water was so high that the fall wasn’t too bad” he added while holding a grass trimmer. Nieun had just finished weeding his cassava field. He explained that since a couple of years they replaced paddy rice with cassava cultivation. “We grow paddy rice twenty kilometres from here, where we have more land. We have enough for us and it’s more profitable to sell cassava” he added. On the northern side of Nieun’s house the cassava fields expand to the forest, where the family collect bamboo shoots and various medicinal plants; on the southern side the water stream marks the border of the property, and various shacks shelter different agricultural appliances and other construction equipment. Mangoe, rambutan, banana and jackfruit trees were planted all around the land lot providing shade and delicacies. Nieun and Nie have four kids. Mai, the youngest is only five years old. Yuki is eleven, she likes helping her dad when he goes to the forest collecting fruits and plants. Yuli is fourteen, he loves motorbikes and hanging out with his friends until late. Da, the oldest is twenty, she is not married yet and it does not seem to bother her that much. The family, moved to Koc Ton village before Da was born. The decision to move was taken by Tai, Nieun’s father-in-law, who lives with his wife just 50 meters away from Nieun’s place.
Tai is 70, but looks younger than his actual age. His skin is tanned, his body firm and strong. He is reactive and talks a lot. When I met him, he only wore a towel around his waist. “Have you been to Boun Tai and Boun Neua?” he asked me twice. Both places are located in Phongsaly Province, a thousand kilometres north. “I did” I replied. Originally from a village close to Thakek, Tai held a government job as a land surveyor. He travelled extensively throughout the country to survey land for potential mining projects. He bought land in Koc Ton village upon his retirement in 1999. “I was looking for a place to start integrated farming with my family” he said. He divided the plot in equal parts for his six children. “It was a good deal” Tai explained. “I was looking for land beside a fresh water stream and I bought it” he added. “Villagers thought the land was infested with spirits and UXOs so the price was very low”. However, the fear of the other villagers proven somehow to be true the day an explosion almost made Tai completely deaf. “We had to clear the land back then, the area was covered in shrubs and forest” he said. “One day I was clearing the shrubbery and all of a sudden I was on the ground”. It was a UXO, an Unexploded Ordinance dating back to the war years when Laos had been heavily bombed. About a third of the bombs that were dropped at that time did not detonate. “I thought they were shooting at me! It recalled me when I was a Pathet Lao soldier!”. Tai was lucky as he only lost hearing from his left ear. Today, he wears an ear amplifier but UXOs continue to contaminate land in Laos, seriously hampering rural development.
The next day, some district officials were invited for lunch and the whole family teamed up to prepare the feast. I was in the kitchen, when Nie told me about the family’s economic challenges and the plan to migrate to Thailand in the upcoming dry season. “What we earn now is not enough. And everything is getting more and more expensive here” She said “My brother is in Thailand; he says the you can earn a good wage picking up fruits in Chantabouly district”. I nodded at her. “The little kids will stay here with their grandparents and go to school, but Da and Yuli will come with us”. Both Nieun and Nie worked in Thailand before. Nieun used to earn a daily wage at a construction site in Nakhon Phanom Province before getting married. Nie lived and worked in Thailand in her teenage years, when her father Tai used to trade Thai goods in Laos. Two of Nie’s brothers are still there. “We will plant rice and we go; we already have our passports” she said convinced. More than 200,000 Lao workers migrate every year to Thailand, where wages are two to three times higher and low-skilled labour is needed. In Thailand, Lao migrants are employed in the services, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Some migrate temporarily, others, as Nie’s brothers, permanently. Nie told me that two months of hard work in Thailand equal the yearly income of the farm. I nodded again. Surprised.
After lunch a storm was approaching. It was time to warmly greet everyone and leave the village. During the ride, the delicious taste of the food and the gentle inebriation of the homemade rice whiskey were mitigated by the bitterness of Nie’s words. Why a family who works its own land, and is both self-sufficient and market-oriented would be forced to seasonally migrate to Thailand to make ends meet?