AN UPLAND STORY
upland [ˈʌplənd] noun an area of high land that is not near the coast.
First 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.
The wind blew west from the Annamite following the course of the Nam Theun river as our boat tread through the dead trees and bamboos rising from the deep waters. The forest that once covered the Nakai Plateau is now partly submerged by the largest hydropower reservoir in the country: The Nam Theun 2, operational since 2010. A few kilometers from Thalang, a floating check post marks the entrance to the Nakai Nam Theun National Protected Area, established in 2019. Two officials raised the entrance bar after checking our permits. We were heading North-East on the long tail boat towards the source of the Nam Xot River, a tributary of the Nam Theun. It was late April, the early morning mist blended with the smoke of the shrubbery burnt in the valley’s upland fields limiting our visibility to a few dozen meters. “Look!” someone screamed silently, “an Elephant!”. “It might be the one who attacked and killed a villager last week” said an official on the other boat, “He is old, he probably came here to die alone, far from the group”. “What a noble way to disappear” I thought, as the longtail boat proceeded up river leaving the majestic creature behind.
Due to the reservoir downstream, the Nam Xot’s flow slowed down, causing deposits of large sand sediment, derived from erosion of the riverbanks along its flow. The shallow waters forced us to push the boat through the sand several times before reaching Nahao Village three hours later in the midst of the afternoon’s heat. The village lays on the eastern bank of the Nam Xot, 25 kilometers upstream the confluence with the Nam Theun. A few kilometers away, the Annamite separates Laos from Vietnam. Kids and buffaloes cooled down in the river while farmers prepared the upland fields for the planting season. In Nahao, shifting cultivation is the main agricultural practice, villagers have the right to use the plots of land they clear, slashing and then burning the shrubbery. The cleared plot is then generally used for growing rice or cash crops, as cassava and corn. This ancestral agricultural practice is often appointed as one of the main causes of deforestation; although several studies have proven that it can be sustainable, if the swidden has enough time to recover. The latter isn’t often the case, especially when the pressure on land is high due to large commercial plantations or high population density.
Nahao is a small village, home to about 40 families belonging to the Ma Kong ethnic group, part of the Mon-Khmer ethno-linguistic family. There is no electricity in the village, even though is furnished with electric poles, and despite big led lamps and electric sockets are installed in some of the houses. The wealthy own a sun power battery, which can charge headtorches and other electronic goods during daytime, to secure a few hours of light after dusk. The same evening, we dined at Ms. Phang’s house, a sixty-five-year-old lady, head of the family whose hosted us.
Originally from the area, Ms. Phang moved throughout the country during the civil war with her husband, who was enlisted in the Pathet Lao army. During the wartime, she learnt some basics of medicine and first aid to help Pathet Lao soldiers. Her first husband was killed at end of the war in 1975, leaving Ms. Phang with three children, the youngest only five months old. Ms. Phang married a second time, and gave birth to two more children before her second husband left her 22 years ago soon after the birth of their youngest daughter. Today, Ms. Phang lives with her son Khamla, her daughter Uoi, her daughter in law and her two grandchildren. She continues to aid people of the villages nearby with her nursing skills. She is a well-respected institution in the area. Every day, people come to her house to receive contraceptive injections, vitamin injections and other types of treatments, providing Ms. Phang’s family with a stable cash flow. As we dined at the light of our headtorches, Ms. Phang explained that the electric lines are not up to the security standards required by the company that controls the electric grid, thus the electricity does not reach the village.
The next day Ms. Phang told us about livelihood activities in the village. She explained how some families grow upland rice and corn, a few grow lowland rice, while many keep pigs, buffaloes and goats. Buffaloes, she said, can be sold up to ten million kip to traders coming all the way from Lak Sao, on a trail north west of the village. “But everyone in the village grows cassava,” said Ms. Phang. “In the last two years it [Cassava] replaced a large part of the land used for upland rice” continued Ms. Phang; “many villagers now buy rice in Talang, where they sell dry cassava, transported by boat”. Cassava is a perennial woody shrub with an edible root, which originated in tropical America. Over the last four decades, the demand for cassava has grown dramatically as the crop begun to be used industrially as animal feed and also processed into many different products such as sweeteners and starch. In Nahao, cassava dominates the landscape. The plant is grown by smallholders on upland fields using minimum farming inputs. Cassava grows from cuttings from the stems of recently harvested plants. The cuttings are planted in the soil before the rainy season, and the root can be harvested already six months later. Even though the plant requires minimal care to grow, it extracts large amounts of nutrients from the soil, and its continuous production can lead to serious soil nutrient depletion, erosion and low yields. The dynamics in Nahao reflect the transition of the country, from a subsistence economy to a market-oriented system. However, when market accessibility is limited, and the village is particularly remote, the replacement of rice cultivation with cash crops could threat food security in the long run. Especially for those families who rely solely on the market for their staples.
After four days in the village, we warmly thanked Ms. Phang and prepared our boat for the way back to Thalang. Wrapped in mixed feelings, I admired the riverbanks as the boat flowed downstream. The river widened. Its waters reflected the haziness of the sky while fishermen set up their nets for the night. Later on, I tried to spot the elephant once again, this time without success. We reached Thalang before nightfall.