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Women leaders protect the forest and the future

By Savann Oeurm
Bouathong Sengchan (right) gathers wild fruits in the forest with her daughter. Bouathong has been the chief of Ponemani village since 2017. Photo by Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

In southern Laos, Oxfam's partner helps a small village conserve their natural resources and the forest that sustains them.

The news spread quickly around Phonemani village that morning: Late the previous night, someone crept into the forest near the village and cut down 10 precious Malva trees, prized for their valuable nuts.

In this part of southern Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malva nuts are an important source of income. “Villagers harvest the nuts and can generate around two to three million kips [US$240 to $350] per year,” Phonemani village’s chief, Bouathong Sengchan, says. In a country with an average income of about $2,000 (villagers in Phonemani probably earn half that annually), losing 10 valuable Malva trees was a shock to her and her fellow villagers.

At first, Bouathong says she wept. Then she gathered her fellow villagers, and reviewed their forestry patrol operations, so as to prevent this from ever happening again.

Protecting the forest

Phonemani village is in the Xe Pian National Protected Area in Attapeu province, and while most of the 362 ethnic Lao Loum villagers here are farmers, they derive considerable income from the forest. In addition to Malva tree nuts, people here gather rattan and tap trees for resin they can also sell. Farmers grow cassava and various vegetables and fruits. Illegal logging of Malva trees, probably done to more easily gather the nuts growing high in the trees, is a problem here, and Oxfam’s partner GAPE, the Global Association for the People and the Environment, is helping leaders like Bouathong train local people to monitor and protect the forest, learn about forestry laws, environmental protection, and how to use forest resources in a sustainable manner.

Both men and women participate in forest patrols to protect against illegal logging in the Xe PianNational Protected Area. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

GAPE and Oxfam are paying special attention to Phonemani’s 158 women, most of whom have limited formal education and have not been able to take advantage of past training opportunities. Bouathong, who is 54-years-old and has been the village chief since 2017, says GAPE training is helping the women of Phonemani became more organized, and they are more motivated to participate in discussions and decision making on the management of the forest.

“I can see the improvement of women’s confidence in my village, especially myself,” Bouathong says. “Women are more confident about talking with authorities about the issues that concern them, that’s a very good change so far,” Bouathong says, adding that women are now patrolling the forest with men, watching out for illegal loggers, and protecting their natural resources.

“The forest is my heritage,” Bouathong says, adding that her connection has only become stronger since joining the patrolling efforts. She swears she will not let anyone destroy her forest.

Toi, a 27-year old farmer from Phonemani, crosses the Xe Kham Phor River, on the way to her rice paddy. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Negotiating with government

The ability of women and men to defend their forest and speak up to the people in power was tested recently when local authorities came to Phonemani with a proposal to make an economic land concession to a Vietnamese company intending to establish a rubber tree plantation in the protected forest.

Bouathong says the officials claimed the plantation would contribute to the village’s economy and the company would provide clothes, food, and money if they agreed to the proposal. She was concerned that some of the villagers did not understand the proposal, and simply agreed because they received gifts from the company.

Bouathong and others consulted with GAPE, and she called a village meeting to discuss the proposal, explaining to her neighbors the impact the ELC would have on their forest. As a result, they turned down the proposal, fearing the loss of their natural resources. “I didn’t want any gifts from the company, or the government, if they want to destroy our forests and clear our lands for a rubber plantation,” Bouathong said. “We disagreed with this agro-industry project proposal because it would destroy our natural resources and eco-system, and harm our way of life.”

Instead, Bouathong and the villagers urged the government to help create an eco-tourism site for Phonemani community. “If we have an eco-tourism site, there will be no harm to our forest, land, and to the water quality of the river,” she noted, adding that she wants at least 10 percent of the revenue to go towards the village. Longer term, she and other leaders here think it will be a more sustainable way to develop the area. “I expect the government will support our initiative for eco-tourism, and I want to encourage our young people to join hands in protecting the forests and river,” she says.

“I am very proud to be a woman leader of this village, Bouathong says. “I have learned many things about how to help communities to protect their natural resources, the role of women as community leaders, and the regulations and laws to protect the environment and natural resources.”

From now on, Bouathong and villagers have committed not to allow any single Malva tree to be cut down like the previous nightmare she and her fellow villagers experienced. This is to ensure that villagers can make their living in sustainable way while protecting their forest.

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