Despite enjoying robust economic growth, Laos continues to face challenges in development, particularly in rural areas.
The predominantly agricultural nation seeks to eradicate poverty by 2020, and the nongovernmental group Japan International Volunteer Center is doing its bit to help.
World Bank figures from 2012 showed 23.2 percent of the nation’s 6.6 million population live below the poverty line.
Lacking industry of its own, Laos depends heavily on foreign investment and revenue from leasing land to foreign corporations. This has brought about rapid development and improvements in infrastructure in urban areas at the expense of rural areas, said Masahito Hirano, who heads the organization’s volunteer program in Laos.
A sum of ¥100,085 donated by readers of The Japan Times last year has been used to support JVC’s program in Laos, which aims to help villagers protect the environment and manage natural resources in order to secure food supplies.
JVC currently provides support to residents in around 30 villages in central Laos.
“Many Laotians in rural areas have gotten used to the abundance of natural resources,” Hirano said, adding that they are unaware of the fact that economic changes are also introducing problems such as restricting access to certain livelihoods.
“Expanding economic opportunities are associated with higher financial needs and many villagers, unless their living conditions become affected by the loss of natural resources, lose interest in conservation of the natural environment,” Hirano said.
In central Savannakhet Province, JVC is now helping communities set up riverside fish conservation zones to preserve aquatic biodiversity and secure a supply of food. The zones — formally opened this year in four villages — help to create economic stability.
Hirano said news of the fish conservation zones has drawn interest from communities across the country, reflecting growing needs elsewhere, too.
“If villagers manage to follow certain rules on when and where to fish and what tools to use, they can prevent fish stocks decreasing,” Hirano said.
He advocates greater involvement by residents so that they come to recognize the importance of creating such rules.
“They should be aware that threats to natural resources may affect the lives of all households, whose members depend on a variety of resources ranging from rice crops and mushrooms to crabs and fish,” Hirano said. “A decrease in fish volume often leads to protein-energy malnutrition in children as meat consumption in villages is relatively low.”
The group is also trying to help women play a greater part in decision-making in their communities.
JVC staff have been organizing training sessions for locals with a focus on helping minorities understand how the nation’s law relates to land ownership. This is aimed at empowering them to stand up and protect their native lands.
In some rural areas, JVC has also introduced the Participatory Land Use Planning (PLUP) program, which puts villagers in charge of managing local resources and has helped create community forests from which nontimber forest products are harvested.
According to Hirano, villagers have been responsive and have shown a greater interest in local activities.
JVC also provides aid in other countries, including Cambodia, Thailand, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, South Africa and North Korea.