2005 Journey - Laos & a Bump in the Road

Newsletter 3: A Long Trek into Laos

May 2, 2005

Hello Once Again,

On the 20th of March I entered Laos to begin searching for handicraft or textile co-operatives at the village level. I began in northwestern Laos, where the average income is $20-$30 per month. This region is famously known as Golden Triangle where marginalized ethnic minority groups scrape by at a subsistence level. Opium production may seem like a lucrative trade, but from what I have seen over the past month it does more to impoverish families and destroy communities.  

The Quiet American

Soon after entering Laos, I had the off-chance of meeting with an American man whose family lives in the border town next to Thailand. How we met was interesting. I had gone through that town in haste to head deep into Laos and was recommended to visit a new and upcoming site for eco-tourism. Much to my chagrin, I was provided with the wrong village name. As a result, I got off the bus in the middle of the jungle and spent two quiet days in a rural village staying with a local minority family. There was no guest house, no restaurant, and no eco-tourism here, and far from any foreigners.  However, I would say that my accidental home-stay experience was a much deeper cultural experience than any tour operator could have arranged.

I spent those two days in the village tramping down the river with the adolescent boys and girls as they foraged – boys in the river and girls along the riverside; I played with the local children who were amused at my efforts to learn their language and my attempt to teach rudimentary English; and in the evening I relaxed and ate with the family. On the last night I negotiated the price of her woven clothe that I could use as a blanket at night.

After two nights, I packed my things and went to sit along the roadside in hopes of catching a ride - a ride to anywhere. When the first vehicle came up and stopped, I grabbed my backpack, leaned in, and in slow, pronounced English I asked where he was headed. Little did I expect an American to be behind the wheel, so I was quite surprised to hear a reply I understood, much less a reply in American English! It took me a moment to realize this and we both started laughing as we drove back towards the Thai border.

He and his family started the first and only feed mill in Laos, along with introducing soybean production just seven years ago.  Their focus is to offset the slash and burn agriculture which is no longer sustainable. The traditional approach has become detrimental due to the population growth placing increased demands on the soil and shortening the rotation cycle. He explained to me how the mulch from the soybean crops actually replenishes the nutrients in the soil that rice draws out, and when soybeans are rotated in between crops, the rice yield increases 10%-15%. This was my first introduction to individuals and NGOs introducing sustainable development in Laos.  

I spoke with them about their plans to work with the local community in producing handicrafts for export, but it is only in the idea stage as of yet and nothing that they felt was really marketable in the west.  

Prior to their arrival, and on an ever increasing scale, most of the produce, lumber and natural resources are being usurped out of Laos in large Chinese trucks heading north. These truckers are on their return trip after having dumped rejected clothing products that did not make it to the markets in the US, Japan or Europe; rejects such as t-shirts with misspellings or misfits, all produced en-mass in Chinese factories.  

It seems to me that the Chinese are doing their best to commandeer all of the natural resources of this landlocked nation. To help the Chinese in securing their fortunes, the Lao government is easily paid off (read: blatant corruption). One such story this family shared with me was about their soybean contracts with farmers. They provide seed at below cost, and when it is harvested they receive a guaranteed price for the harvest. 

Along comes a Chinese trucker who offers them $0.02 more than their contracted price for the crops, so they sell, and the crop is sent north rather than being utilized in Laos where the local economy benefits from the feed mill actually making a finished product. In an attempt to intervene, he offered to pay the contract price to the local police at the border to halt and off-load the trucks. Word spread quickly amongst the police and the borders were soon sealed to keep in the soybeans. However, the next week army trucks loaded with soybeans crossed into China. To out maneuver the attempt to save their soybeans, an Army General was brought into the loop by the Chinese. They learned a hard lesson as their produce went north - no police officer at the border is going to stop the army.

Not to be outdone, the Thai government also wants in.  As I write, both governments are collaborating to develop a road system in the north with the stated purpose of improving the transportation system. Ex-pats residing in the area refer to it as the HIV Corridor. By chance on my first night, I had met and drank a few beers with the chief engineer working on the project for the Thai government. Later, on my trip into the jungles of Laos, I realized this was no altruistic venture on the part of either government. Read loud and clear: deforestation and systematic rape of natural resources with total disregard for the environment.

Free from any recognizable form of land management, whole swaths of hillsides lay barren. It truly pains me to tell you how many jungles I traveled through that have been reduced to either charred earth, or is left desolate and strewn with the discarded remains of clear-cutting. Already 40% of Laos has been deforested and the race is on to cash in on what remains. Don’t forget the loss of habitat for the growing list of near-extinct animals residing in these jungles. I see them frequently pictured on posters from environmental NGOs asking locals not to kill them. Locals joke that those posters serve more as a menu than anything else. These are the same near-extinct animals I saw readily available on local markets and along the roadside. 

As my bus entered one village, a hunter proudly displayed his latest kill – I recognized it from the posters as endangered. I watched the transaction as my bus driver bought it for $4.50. It was here in Laos that I realized humanity is not on a road to Armageddon, but it was on a crash course with Extinction.

I asked the driver about his purchase. He said the hunter was very happy because he could feed his family for 2 weeks with that money. He was intent on selling the carcass to the Chinese who would pay over twice that.  
In regards to establishing cooperatives, there is practically nothing on the ground at this point. The reason is that both the people and the government are hesitant to try the cooperative system. It failed with devastating effects after forcefully installing it after coming to power in 1975.  However, their model was a Communist top-down approach. Widespread corruption assured its failure. Now a few NGOs are working at the village level to reintroduce the cooperative system as a means to market their handicrafts, in addition to their silk and cotton textiles.  

One such NGO is Service Fraternel d'Entraide working on a silk production project. This is a Christian NGO with no religious strings attached. They have a complex in Lam Nam Tha where they train weavers for 3 weeks on new looms that keep the fabric taunt and parallel. These looms are intended to replace the homemade looms currently found under many huts in the villages (note: huts are raised on stilts, and this provides protection from the elements while doing work). 

Once a weaver has completed the training she is given a professionally (and locally) made loom.  On the old loom, a weaver can expect to get 20,000 kip ($2.00) for a single scarf and she can make a scarf in one day. This organization will give her 25,000 kip ($2.50) for the first 100 scarves she produces. Afterwords, they raise the payment to 45,000 kip ($4.50) as the quality improves.  

The organization started about a year ago and is in the initial stages of setting up. Currently they are booked up with trainees for the next three months. They also have introduced a improved breed of silk worm over the traditional worm they used. To add to the value, they introduced a more nutritious strand of mulberry tree along with improved pruning techniques to keep the trees at 2 meters thereby encourage optimal nutrition in each leaf. To finalize the training program, they teach people to raise the flora used in the natural dyeing process. Interestingly, to ensure a higher quality of dye, they teach them to make extracts to reduce the seasonal variations in color.

Currently they export to a small fair trade market in France, and I left them with PeaceCraft’s information.the capacity to export to other markets. I did go to one of the villages nearby to seem some of their looms in action. In that village I found two looms, one had the bench removed and placed on her older loom which she was utilizing at the time of my visit. The other loom was being used as a drying rack. I must say, they have their work cut out for them to change an existing system, even if it is inferior to what they offer.

While traversing Laos, I had another chance meeting with a man working as the Director of the Narcotics Affairs Section in the US Embassy, David Wise. I shared with him what I am doing and he said that the Embassy is involved with helping villages shift from opium production to local tea and village handicrafts. The program was new and much work was to be done in improving the quality of both.

This about sums up my trip to Laos, exempting the details of bumbs, bruises, aches, pains while traveling in local transportation (sitting in the back of pickups for hours and hours), and getting sick more than a few times from the food.  

Well, this is all for now, and I suspect it will be about 8 weeks before my next mass-emailing. Feel free to write me any questions or comments, and I am sure to write back, just not always in a timely manner.  Also feel free to forward this on to anyone you think may be interested in what I am doing.

I hope to hear from you and that all is well out there.  I will continue to keep you informed as my Journey for Fair Trade unfolds.

Mitch Teberg 

Newsletter 4: A Bump in the Road - Recovery in Japan

June 21, 2005
I hope this reaches you in good health and good spirits. I have been in Asia about four months now, volunteering as PeaceCraft's Liaison following up on cooperatives and looking for new ones to bring into the fair trade loop.  It has been a fascinating journey. As you know, I worked in northern Thailand for about 5 weeks then went into Laos for a month and back to Thailand.  My journey has been both exciting and fun with lots of great stories. Needless to say, it has had its ups and downs.  

About 2 weeks ago I arrived in Japan to visit friends. Actually what I am doing is recovering from a re-broken leg and a nasty bout with dengue fever that landed me in a Thai hospital for eight days. When it struck me I couldn't muster the strength to leave my guest house room for three or four very disoriented days. I was able to stay hydrated by lying on the floor of the shower and letting it run. 

Now I have recovered from the dengue fever and regained some of the 30 pounds (15 kg) I lost. However, I am waiting another 4 weeks for the leg to recover. I am not sure how it was re-broken; I was hobbling around for 2 weeks before the fever hit me and landed me in the hospital where they x-rayed it. Doctors in the US always told me to repeatedly walk on it to compresses the bone and it will heal faster.  Nonetheless, I think this forced respite was intended by powers with greater understanding than I.  
Till I am back on the road, I have been planning my route and will be following up on a cooperative in Cambodia that has contacted PeaceCraft.  I have also been researching graduate school programs now that I am holed up a while. We will see what becomes of it. 

Anyway, I just thought I would notify you of a small bump I encountered in the road, but will be back on my journey soon enough.

For those of you getting this email in or near Tokyo, Japan, there is a Fair Trade shop near Shibuya Station called Grassroots (http://grassroots.jp/).  It is a tightly packed shop with products from many countries and a great place to get more information on Fair Trade and other similar movements.  There is also Peopletree (www.peopletree.co.jp) which is a terrific Fair Trade organization. 

I will send out another email once I return to the journey beginning in Cambodia then on to Vietnam. 

Mitch Teberg

Feel free to email me as I have plenty of time on my hands to respond now.