Asian Development Bank

Canadian survey sheds new light on rural livelihoods in Laos

Probe International Press Backgrounder
September 6, 2002

Survey warns that hydro dams, irrigation schemes, and tree plantations – in the name of poverty alleviation – can do more harm than good for Laotians whose livelihoods depend upon natural rivers and forests.

International aid agencies have long promoted hydro dams, irrigation schemes, and tree plantations in the name of poverty alleviation in the rural backwaters of Laos. But a recent Canada-supported survey, The People and Their River, warns such development can do more harm than good for Laotians whose livelihoods depend upon natural rivers and forests.

The People and Their River is the first in-depth survey of people’s livelihoods along the Xe Bang Fai River in central Laos, which estimates that as many as 150,000 people derive “important livelihood benefits” from the river and its tributaries.
Xe Bang Fai River

Xe Bang Fai is a large Mekong tributary threatened by the proposed Nam Theun 2 hydropower project. If built, Nam Theun 2 would drastically increase year-round flows in the Xe Bang Fai which would have damaging effects on riverside agriculture, fisheries, and water quality.

The 80-page report, written mainly for donor agencies and based on interviews conducted in 24 riverside communities, describes trends in Xe Bang Fai resource use:

  • Wild fisheries are an increasingly important source of cash income for riverside villagers. Although cross-border trade in fish is still illegal, people either sell their own fish at the local markets or sell to fish traders who travel up and down the Xe Bang Fai River every day, buying tens of kilogrammes of fish from riverside villages. In flood-prone areas, where rice harvests are usually poor, people either barter fish for rice or they sell fish and vegetables at the local market and use the money to buy rice.
  • Besides catching a wide variety of fish, people grow many types of cash crops on the moist riverbanks when the floodwaters recede; they also sell shrimp, crab, and frogs from the river’s wetlands; and from the upland forests, tree resins – resin for patching boats, another resin for fuel, as well as mushrooms, rattan, honey, bamboo shoots, and orchids.

The report also stresses that local people’s “sophisticated and dynamic knowledge” of their environment “is essential for informed decision-making about proposed development initiatives – from projects targeting a single local community to projects that can affect [the] entire river basin.”

Calling for further research, the survey team criticizes donor agencies for failing to understand the links between people’s livelihoods, the local market economy, and the river basin’s natural wealth, and for overestimating the economic benefits of their development initiatives.

  • Donor agencies have spent tens of millions of dollars on irrigation pumps to encourage farmers to grow a second crop of rice in the dry season but farmers report that growing rice year-round is environmentally unsound and uneconomical, with dry season inputs (i.e., fuel, seed, and chemical fertilizer) costing up to twice the market value of the harvest.
  • Women have been particularly hard hit by eucalyptus plantations promoted by the Asian Development Bank. Where tracts of natural forest have been cleared to make way for new trees, wild mushrooms growing in these forests – an important source of cash income for women – have been wiped out. The farmers that could afford to invest in eucalyptus seedlings and chemical fertilizers, have no market for their trees and doubt they will ever recover their costs.
  • A World Bank forestry scheme promotes logging as a source of income for villagers despite local concerns that cutting down large trees in the forests means less tree resin and other forest products, and may eventually dry out the wetlands nearby.


The People and Their River: A survey of river-based livelihoods in the Xe Bang Fai River Basin in Central Lao PDR, by Bruce Shoemaker, Ian Baird, and Monsiri Baird, is available the Lao PDR/Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (P.O. Box 5988, Vientiane, Lao PDR).

For more information, contact:
Gráinne Ryder, Policy Director, Probe International, Toronto, Canada
Phone (416) 964-9223, ext. 228, or e-mail
225 Brunswick Ave, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2M6


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