Despite making significant economic progress over the past 20 years, Laos remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in Southeast Asia.

Natural disasters and other factors have taken their toll on the agricultural sector.

Consequently, many in this largely rural country have faced severe food shortages in recent years.

Japan International Volunteer Center, a nongovernmental organization that regularly receives donations from the Japan Times Readers’ Fund, supports families and aids food security in rural areas, where poverty is prevalent.

Some of the ¥118,064 in donations that JVC received from the fund last year were used to support Laotians in the Atsaphone and Phine districts in Savannakhet province.

“There is a wide range of activities we’re engaged in to ensure food security,” said JVC’s Masahito Hirano, who spent about 3½ years in Laos helping villagers.

Hirano said last year JVC focused on improving rice farming and management in villages where many families face shortages.

“In recent years JVC has been helping the locals establish and operate rice banks, which enable them to tackle the rice shortage,” Hirano said.

Rice is harvested in Laos around November and December, but many families suffer from rice shortages, especially in the last quarter of the year due to droughts, which affect yields. Villagers often resort to borrowing rice from other villages at interest rates from 50 up to 100 percent, resulting in significant losses.

By establishing a rice bank in the village, villagers can borrow rice at low interest, such as 10 to 15 percent.

“Through this system, we can be sure that the capital will remain in the village and the amount may increase over the years due to interest payments,” Hirano explained.

In May, JVC’s Laos office held a workshop where villagers were provided with an opportunity to share their experience and knowledge regarding operation of the existing eight rice banks. In addition to training aimed at improving cultivation techniques, the office organized training sessions for accounting, enabling villagers to improve their skills required to operate the rice banks in the future.

Food insecurity, however, also results from deforestation, which hinders preservation of forest resources such as mushrooms and bamboo shoots, on which the villagers depend. Forests cover nearly half of the country’s land.

“We help villagers establish their own regulations to manage the natural resources,” Hirano said. “We also aim to help them acquire skills to maintain the resources and make improvements for themselves.”

To raise the villagers’ awareness of the law and their rights, JVC organizes training sessions and puppet shows in local languages.

There are 49 officially recognized ethnicities in Laos.

Since its establishment in 1980, JVC has provided assistance in over 20 countries. The organization currently supports people in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, South Africa, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, South Korea and Sudan. Some of the projects are undertaken nationwide.

Donations can be sent to: Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. 065 Uenochuo Branch, Savings Account 0133970 Japan International Volunteer Center.

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