To read more about my latest trip to Laos, please check out my blog.
In 2009, whilst working in south west China I met three Aini (Akha) minority women who had walked several kilometres over the border from Lao PDR to sell produce they had collected from the forest or grown at home. Dressed in their traditional costume, these women stayed in my mind and in February 2011 I decided to visit Laos for a short research visit and the situation I discovered was quite different in many ways.
In contrast to China’s population of more than 1.3 billion, Laos is the least populated country in South East Asia with only a population of around 6 million which is made up of 49 ethnic groups making it one of the most ethnically diverse countries in South East Asia. The largest economic activity is agriculture which provides a living for 80% of the population. The principal crop is rice but corn, tobacco, cotton and coffee are also grown. Many people in rural areas also still gather food and building materials from the forest around their homes. Sold at markets in towns and along roadsides, forest products such as bamboo shoots, mushrooms, rattan, cardamom and ginger are key sources of income for the rural population.
Part of what I have been doing in China and Laos over the past couple of years is recording some of the textile traditions of the minority women and photographing some of the last women to wear their traditional clothing every day as the 21st century infiltrates into every corner of these often still isolated communities.
For centuries swidden cultivation was an important farming practice found across Southeast Asia. Swiddening has always been characterised by change but today these systems are changing and sometimes disappearing at a pace never before experienced. Particularly in the provinces bordering China, the farming system is shifting from a subsistence slash and burn system to an intensive market orientated one relying on labour, fertilizer and pesticide input resulting in a decline in the biodiversity of the natural tropical rain forest and agriculture.
Xieng Khouang Province hides a completely different story within its landscape. It is one of the most bombed provinces in the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. More than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, up to 30% of which did not detonate.
From July 2012, I will be based in Vientiane, Laos working on this project.