Laotians learn about land rights through theater

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The Japan International Volunteer Center supports villagers in Laos by educating them about land rights, using theater as a way to help them understand the legal system and develop a better future for their nation independently.

This year, the group known as JVC used ¥96,928 from The Japan Times Readers’ Fund to raise awareness among ethnic minorities in the Phine and Atsaphone districts about their legal rights, which they have not taken full advantage of due to lack of education.

The focus is “to support Laotian ethnic minorities to understand their country’s laws regarding land ownership so that they can autonomously preserve their traditional lands,” said JVC official Masahito Hirano, who is responsible for the organization’s volunteer program in Laos.

For a country like Laos, which doesn’t have much industry of its own and thus has to rely heavily on selling land to foreign corporations for government revenue, land conservation is a critical issue for villagers to maintain their lifestyle and for the nation to undergo future economic development.

The fertile lands of Laos, including forests and rich agricultural soil that are essential for local residents not only for their livelihood but also to preserve their traditions, have continuously been targeted by foreign enterprises for exploitation, Hirano said.

Although Laos has domestic laws to restrict the development of valuable forests, villagers and even administrative officials have failed to put them to use, he said.

To help educate villagers, JVC uses theatrical drama to explain complicated legal matters in an entertaining manner.

Local high school students perform the parts, using the local dialect for the benefit of elders who can’t speak the nation’s standard language. The process also helps the young Laotians learn about the legal system, and they in turn will be able to teach their future children.

A 14-year-old male student from the Phine district told JVC officials that he was happy to be a part of the theater project. “The good thing about this is that you can actually learn things that are connected to protecting our forests and wildlife. . . . I feel I’m more informed and I’m more confident after doing this,” the organization quoted him as saying.

Hirano said young Laotians are especially keen to take part in such projects.

“I hope these grass-roots actions will bear fruit in the future and hopefully local people can preserve their traditionally important lands,” he said.

“But the future rests with Laotians themselves. . . . We are not teaching them to refuse all industrial developments. We want to provide knowledge to villagers so that they can independently make a judgment of how their lands should be used.”

As a short-term project, JVC is planning to film a performance which can be shows to villagers in remote areas that the group can’t reach in person.

For the long term, Hirano said the volunteer organization will continue promoting villagers’ rights to their communal lands.

He said he hopes people in Japan will learn more about Laos and become interested in the group’s activities.

JVC is continually looking for support, from small monetary donations to new volunteers, including participation in its choir group that holds charity concerts regularly.

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