Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thoughts on fieldwork in Laos 21.2–15.3.2012

The atmosphere was excited and somewhat anxious on February 21, when we first landed on hot and sunny Vientiane. Still the mission of our trip was clear in our heads. After spending a good part of the winter familiarising ourselves with the focus group discussions already collected in the FFRC's INES project, we had now come to Laos for a month to gather further data for our Master's theses. The theses are written as part of the INES project and, in line with its objectives, they address the interlinkages between energy and livelihoods. More specifically, one concentrates on the adaptation and resilience of livelihoods towards environmental changes, considering also whether access to electricity can enhance adaptation capacity. As for the other, it examines how electricity is adapted as part of people's energy and livelihood related knowledge system. To help us answer these questions, we interviewed experts from several organizations and conducted a week of fieldwork in the rural district of Fuang in Vientiane Province, a 3-hour ride from the nation's capital.

Fishing in the Nam Lik reservoire.
During the fieldwork we visited five villages within a 20 km radius of the district capital where we stayed. Two of them were located along the river Nam Lik and were affected by a nearby dam. In the third village lived people who were resettled there after Nam Ngum II dam project forced them to leave their previous homes. The last two villages were located in the mountains and were inhabited by Hmongs, one of the numerous ethnic minorities in Laos. On our field trip we were accompanied by Mr. Saithong Phommavong, who served not only as an interpreter but also as an invaluable guide to the region.

In each of the villages four interview sessions were arranged: one with the village head man, one with a focus group of 4–6 persons and two with individuals of different backgrounds. The themes of the interviews were livelihoods, environmental change, energy and future development. The interviewees were reached through the village head man and a district official, who chose suitable people according to our criteria. We were particularly interested in hearing the views of women and people who defined their livelihood as poor or sufficient. In addition to interviewing, data was gathered through ethnographic observation.

Though the data we collected in the villages is waiting to be analysed in detail, some observations can already be stated. Concerning environmental change, we noted that the Nam Lik dam had not affected people’s livelihoods as extensively as we expected. Still the quality of the water had deteriorated and it could not be used for bathing or household purposes anymore. The smell of the water was striking. The quality of fish was worse, too. Moreover, most of the villages had already experienced frequent unseasonal weather conditions in past years and were worried about storms. In the resettlement village we also saw some of the effects that environmental change in the form of a major dam project can have on people’s lives. Some people had adapted their occupations to the new conditions but others trying to go on with only rice cultivation were more unfortunate.

Regarding energy and livelihoods, all of the villages we visited were connected to a grid. Even the poorest in the villages had access to electricity. If they did not have their own meter, they shared one with their neighbour. From the livelihood point of view, electricity proved to be most widely utilised in activities located at home, such as in weaving and in cooking. We did, however, also come across some less popular but interesting uses of electricity, such as fish raising. The most common service provided by electricity was, by far, lighting.

Focus group in the Hmong village of Nong Por.
All in all, the fieldwork was an educating experience. We got to explore rural Laos, gain new insights on our research themes and learn research skills that can only be acquired through practice. We are truly grateful to FFRC and especially the Mekong team for providing us with this wonderful opportunity. Last but not least, we would like to thank all the people we met during our fieldwork for the kindness that they received us with.

Heidi Tuhkanen and Riikka Yliluoma

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