Wetland villagers worry about unpredictable future

Published on September 4, 2013

Beneath a two-storey traditional wooden house, a group of Champassak housewives sit back and wonder what has happened to their food security in one of the richest wetland areas in the country.

The concern for the future of their families and children stems from the knowledge the availability of forest products, animals and fish they so heavily rely on for survival at the Beung Khiat Ngong Ramsar wetland site in Pathoumphone district has dramatically dropped.

Among the four women is Ms Bangon Kedkasone, who has lived close to the wetlands since she was born.

She has been trying to figure out how she and her neighbours are going to survive in this tough new environment.

“We are now discussing what we should do with our future and how we can cope with a food security that has dramatically decreased,” she said.

“In the past, we put our cooking pot on the stove first before going to hunt in the forest nearby because we were confident we could catch plenty of food for our meal.”

Ms Bangon says the situation at the site, which was recognised as a wetland of international significance in 2010 when Laos became a signatory to the Ramsar convention, has undergone a serious change.

“We go out for a whole day to collect food and end up with nothing,” she said.

Villagers began noticing the change over the last few years as they struggled more and more to collect food from the forest.

In the past, most could just walk into the woods close to their house to gather food and catch animals.

They say food sources have now become more limited and changes in the weather have had an impact on their livelihoods – recently, flooding destroyed some villagers’ rice paddies just after they had been planted.

The villagers wonder what is causing the phenomenom. Some blame population increases, climate change, overharvesting, logging or a lack of proper management in the area.

What has happened to the local environment has sounded a warning to villagers and authorities on the importance of wise and sustainable use of the wetlands to prevent further endangerment to nature.

The 2,260 ha Beung Khiat Ngong site is regarded as Laos’ most ecologically diverse and unique wetland area, home to birds, fish, elephants and other animals as well as a variety of plants used in traditional medicine.

Importa ntly, the site is a tourist destination that generates income for local residents and is helping to establish the lucrati ve tourism industry in Champassak province.

Threats to the site’s rich biodiversity were noted in a survey conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which found common species were disappearing from the area.

IUCN Water and Wetlands Programme Coordinator, Mr Raphael Glemet, said the organisation believes overharvesting and logging in areas around the site have directly and indirectly disturbed birds and large mammals.

While the survey could not clearly state how many animals had disappeared, it came as a wake-up call to local residents and authorities on the need to take action to help the environment and rethink how its resources were being used.

The IUCN and local government authorities have stepped in to put together long-term management plans aimed at providing a stable income for villagers to stop them from encroaching on the core wetland zone.

A number of possibilities are being investigated to allow residents to use the land while preserving the environment.

One alternative is through developing ecotourism in the area, which many villagers have already become involved in through offering elephant rides, trekking or bird-watching to visitors.

Ecotourism has great potential to help local residents without exploiting natural resources. However, for the industry to survive, all sectors involved need to be dedicated to helping the environment – any further loss of biodiversity would also mean a loss of tourists.

One Champassak travel agent, who spoke to Vientiane Times on the condition of anonymity, said ecotourism was difficult to operate unless the environment is thriving, as anything less would provoke complaints from customers.

He said his agent had recently stopped offering ecotourism options after some customers were unhappy at seeing practices like logging in the reservation area.

“A customer asked us why people were cutting down trees in the reserve area where they were trekking. This cannot be called ecotourism any more,” he said.

Despite the troubles associated with ecotourism, it still gives villagers like Ms Bangon and her neighbours the best chance of providing for their families’ future.

“Right now, we do not know what is going to happen with our children. If they cannot depend upon this wetland any more, they will have to move away to find work in the city or continue with their education,” Ms Bangon said.

The worried mother’s neighbours are afraid they will not be able to pay for better education for their children, as most are reliant on their husbands to provide an income through work as labourers or farmers.

They say they cannot predict how their lives in the wetlands will turn out or how their children will survive in such an uncertain future.

The current difficulties serve to remind villagers to take conservation seriously – by overharvesting or exploiting natural resources they are taking from their children, and the more they take, the more the next generation will suffer.

Source: Vientiane Times
Published on September 4, 2013