Laos: Communities of the Nakai Plateau get new livelihoods

The creation of a reservoir on the Nakai Plateau gave birth to new communities and new livelihoods. People from 13 villages in the Nam Theun basin moved distances up to 10 kilometers, choosing the new locations themselves to be close to their traditional territories.

Accordingly, the villagers and families from these villages have pulled together and risen to the challenge. They have taken hold of the opportunities offered to create new livelihoods, develop their lifestyles and their incomes, and improve the lives of the younger generations.

Rising out of poverty

Formerly the area was regarded as one of the poorest areas of Laos and had few inhabitants. Access to health services, education, job opportunities and markets was difficult, with a high rate of malnutrition.

Today, people now talk about their new lives, and of having left their old lives. They have embraced the economic development that has been brought within their reach, with different families finding different opportunities and different livelihoods that suit them.

All households are now above the poverty line, compared to a poverty rate of 50% before the Nam Theun 2 project. Nam Theun 2 has instigated many social projects to assist and support these communities, ranging from health and education, to vocational training.

Incomes and the well-being of the people have improved, with nearly everybody surveyed saying that their lives are as good or better than before, and 97% declaring they had nearly doubled their incomes since before the project. More infrastructure now makes up parts of their lifestyles — with connection to the electric grid, clean water supplies and good roads instead of rough tracks only traversable part of the year. The provincial capital is now a one hour drive compared to half a day previously.

New businesses

Businesses that are in harmony with nature have been encouraged, and funding and training is provided to help develop sustainable livelihoods. Microfinance has also been set up, run by the shareholders of the Village Development Fund. Businesses have sprung up, and small shops and professions such as electricians, mechanics and builders offer services across the area. Income sources have become diversified, ranging from agriculture, fisheries, livestock to handicrafts and ecotourism.

Women’s lives have changed a lot from their former conditions where they were responsible for many of the household and agricultural tasks, carrying water, as well as taking care of the children. The project has promoted gender equality and the empowerment of women, and has encouraged their participation in development committees. They are now discovering new lives, where they are happier, more self-reliant, and where their daughters go to school and get an education. Weaving new lives with ancient techniques in many villages, women are taking their livelihoods into their own hands by adapting the skills from their former lifestyles to new markets.

In the village of Sophia, Grandmother Kham has created a weaving group of women from the village. Now they not only weave and make clothes for themselves and their families, they also have the resources to buy the raw materials for making large quantities of textiles that they can sell to visitors and tourists, and with the improved access to markets they can even sell further afield.

With a will to pass on this knowledge to future generations, Grandmother Kham is teaching her grand-children and other young girls in the village to make this handicraft sustainable.

Grandmother Kham Khamphouban, founder of the weaving group, said: “There are 15 people in our weaving group. I have been weaving for a long time, I started when I was 13 years old, learning from my mother. I teach the children by myself, not only my daughter but also others from the village who are interested. I teach them to make the Naga design and flowers, I guide them to do it, and if some cannot create the pattern, I store it on the heddle for them.”

SorKhommany Daughter of Grandmother Kham, a weaving group member, said: “It is good, we sell and earn money for the family, we can buy food, and we can make our clothes. We have electricity that enables us to work anytime. We can weave and sell our works, unlike when we were at our old village.”