Project Phongsali: Women in some villages are learning new skills and starting new industries.

March 2, 2010

Women in Sop Houn and neighboring villages have recently received training in raising mulberry trees and harvesting silk.

Day 29

When we start demolitions in a couple of days, the sound of ordnance being destroyed in controlled explosions will boom up and down the valley of the Nua River, the noise an excellent calling card for us. The disturbance will alert villagers working up in the hills — people living in temporary “rice houses” far from the village — that something extraordinary is happening. When they eventually learn that we are destroying ordnance, I expect that many will quickly report items in their fields.

Not that we are short of work already. There are 96 houses in this village, and already we’ve investigated reports from over twenty of them. Almost every report has resulted in our adding demolitions to our log. The rare exceptions have been items gone mysteriously missing since first encountered — items probably collected by someone to sell as scrap, or items now covered by tall grass and thick brush that must be cut before we can search further.

After Sop Houn, there is only one more village along this road before you hit the border, a small Hmong village so distant that the people there won’t hear our demolitions. There are, however, six villages east of here — not on the road, and accessible only by boat. Today we hired a boat for the day and made our way, village by village, up the Nua with the duel goal of informing residents of our work and checking on their knowledge of UXO.

After a week of hiking these mountains, today’s trip was a welcome change of pace. The boat driver, husband of the head teacher at the village school, came highly recommended. The river presented a set of rapids every few hundred yards, and since the water level is low at the moment, rocks and boulders loomed everywhere. By the end of the day the driver had earned our unqualified admiration, not just for his skill in the rapids, but by his physical stamina. Whenever he judged the channel to be too obstructed, he stripped off his clothes, waded into the current, and carried huge, slippery rocks to the side. (In addition to the pay the driver earned, he was rewarded with two propeller blades that he found under foot in one particularly hazardous channel — evidence that some earlier pilots lacked either his skill or his luck.)

After our return trip, over a few shots of celebratory Lao whiskey, villagers congratulated us on having picked the best boatman on the river and regaled us with stories of his daring. One tale had him making a twenty-kilometer run up the river in the middle of the night. We asked our boatman about that trip; he admitted taking the risk, but modestly laughed off the notoriety. When Yai asked if he had lights on his boat to assist, he set us straight, insisting that lights would have disoriented him; he made the trip by moonlight alone, knowing every tree, rock and channel by heart.

Of the six villages, two were Khamu, two were Tai Dam, and two were Lao Lum; none had any problem with UXO. I’ll never know whether my informing them about our plan to disturb the peace was appreciated. Five of the six villages have had so little contact with outsiders — foreign or Lao — that villagers were suspicious over our inquiries, and we could barely wring conversation out of them. Among the village children, some laughed at my appearance, some stood slack-jawed in amazement, and some burst into tears and ran for their mothers.

The one village of the six that has experienced visitors in the past was a village in which aid workers from an economic development project came to teach women to cultivate mulberry trees and to harvest silk thread from the caterpillars that feed on the trees’ leaves. As we walked through that village, most every household had a woman sitting outside her door tending a pot of boiling water in which floated silk cocoons, some egg-shell white, some egg yolk yellow.

According to the women, they’ve just recently learned to raise the caterpillars and harvest silk, but to my eye everyone looked highly skilled. Harvesting silk from the water-softened cocoons involved drawing a single thin silk fiber from each of five or six cocoons, twisting them together to form a thread, and then pulling that strand hand over hand from the cocoons bobbing in the simmering pot.

Several of the women spoke highly of the Canadian women who taught them their skills, and asked me if, by chance, I knew “Miss Jenny.” One woman, bolder that the others, insisted that we step inside her home to inspect the diploma she has displayed on her wall, documenting her success in the training course.

I inquired of the proud graduate whether the silk project was an effort in opium poppy crop substitution. She said that it was, but then added that her village had no history of poppy cultivation and no involvement in the opium trade.

There are prominent roadside signs posted throughout this part of the province touting various poppy substitution schemes, and Muang May, the district capitol, has a drug rehabilitation home for addicts — an indication that the government and various NGO’s are working both to end poppy cultivation and to help local addicts beat their addiction. The misconception that many westerners have is that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the villages that forsake poppy cultivation and those that get assistance in establishing a substitute crop.

As in the case of the village harvesting silk, some communities that did not grow poppies in the past benefit while other communities in other locations, that have forsaken the poppy receive no help with a substitute crop or industry. While the substitution program’s benefits do eventually trickle through the economy of the entire region, the immediate benefits don’t necessarily land where sponsors think they’re landing.

It’s not through careless planning that this occurs. The reality is that, historically, the poppy crop became established where it did because it proved to be a perfect match for the soil and climate of that place, and in addition, its life cycle is a near perfect fit for the farmer’s yearlong work schedule, requiring no care when the farmers are busy with subsistence crops, and taking just a brief intense effort during times when the farmers have more time on their hands.

If poppy wasn’t the perfect fit, some other crop would already occupy a place in the mountaintop ecology: coffee, mulberry, teak, whatever. Take away the poppy crop and substitute rubber trees, and all you’ll end up with are dead rubber trees. Substitute coffee trees and all you’ll have are dead coffee trees.

A few years ago, while traveling in Xieng Khuang Province, I tried to visit a mulberry plantation in an area that once grew poppy. I was presented several hoops to jump through in order to obtain permission (you’d have thought I was trying to enter a military base). In truth, the organization blocking my access wasn’t the Lao government, but the US-sponsored aid agency that funded the project. I never did get permission to tour the plantation, but with each obstacle placed in my way, I grew more convinced that what project managers didn’t want me to see was probably a stand of dead mulberry trees — trees planted in an unsuitable environment, the site chosen primarily because it was close to deserted poppy fields.

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