In Laos, an emphasis on cash-crop agriculture has questionable impacts

Neil Dawson, University of East Anglia
September 1, 2015
In the remote villages of mountainous Houaphanh Province in north-eastern Laos, change has occurred at a staggering rate. Just 30 years ago many inhabitants lived deep within the region’s tropical forests, where rivers served as highways, interactions with the outside world were rare and virtually every type of resource required for living came from the immediate surroundings. In 2015, the same people sit in their roadside homes, now situated outside of Nam Et Phou Louey National Protected Area, and wait for the daily installment of Thai soap operas to blast through their television sets. But perhaps the most influential change to village life has come in the last 5 years with the replacement of traditionally grown rice for maize as a cash crop. Rice was harvested through strenuous shifting cultivation practices that provided for subsistence agriculture, as opposed to maize, which could be exported to feed Vietnam’s burgeoning livestock supply. With this shift in production mode and emphasis, governments and analysts commonly noted a rise in income among smallholders and a sharp decline in poverty rates. This story appears full of positive trends – but as is so often the case with questions of sustainable development, the disparities lie in the details.
 
A patchwork landscape with receding forests
A patchwork landscape with receding forests - Image: Neil Dawson
 
Looking deeper at local issues – exploring well-being and justice
 
The ongoing project Ecosystem Services, Wellbeing and Justice: Developing Tools for Research and Development Practice is supported by the UK-funded Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme. This study takes an in-depth look at the different social, economic, political and environmental changes affecting villagers from 100 households across just 3 small villages. But rather than using a standard approach to define what is important to a rural household, designed on a computer far, far away, this study focuses on what individuals themselves think it means to live a good life, how they think and feel about changes affecting them and how they perceive the decisions and procedures through which their lives are affected and their own values and interests are either included or neglected.
 
So what does the research show for our 100 Lao households?
 
When we measure people’s well-being based on locally relevant criteria, such as whether or not they can produce or afford enough rice for their household, we find that life for many is actually becoming harder. It is striking that conventional poverty indicators focusing on consumption, education or assets give no indication that this may be the case.
 
The overlooked story goes like this: the risks involved are in a) farming something you cannot eat, b) in taking credit to buy inputs to try to make that harvest pay dividends and c) in placing faith in the market to provide food you can afford. In the absence of any alternative and strong institutional encouragement, few resist the temptation to try cash-crop agriculture, but this system does not pay off for everyone. As a result, while some wealthier people have greatly increased their incomes, a large proportion of the local population is left behind. This trend demonstrates how complex village dynamics can deepen social injustices by allocating development success to groups of society that are already in privileged positions.