“Laos, a world of towering mountain ranges and fertile river beds”. A country that is “the land of a million elephants and a colorful stage on which some of the most charming scenes of Southeast Asia unfold” where you “simply marvel at the untouched beauty of a sunset upon the Mekong”.
These statements are taken from various marketing webpages that seek to show off the Laotian beauty for tourism purposes. Although I do love Laos, much for its emerald-green forests and its kind-hearted communities, the new market structure in Laos that foster consumerism tells a different story. Namely, a story of the land of a million plastic bottles.
Today, the Mekong river suffers heavily from the pollution of plastic waste, as one of the ten rivers in the world that carries 93 percent of trash into the sea. Moreover, one may argue that colourful scenes of Laos may also refer to the large quantity of plastic waste often portrayed in a myriad of flashy colours. However, this is not new or restricted to Laos alone as the world is victim of much the same unnatural development.
“Out with the new, in with the old!”
Laos is moving towards an open market economy pushing liberalization policies to foster economic growth (Manolom and Promphaking, 2016). However, these new developments stand in stark contrast to Laos history of environmental sustainability. As a result of economic structural changes, rural populations across the country have been forced to adapt or change their livelihoods. These rural communities have a prolonged history of living in harmony with the natural world they were immersed in. Living in this way they learned from nature, which involved to think, imagine and to explain the world in harmony with the laws of nature.
Predominantly, rural people were forced to change their livelihoods of environmental sustainability because of displacement and destruction of natural resources during the years of civil unrest in the 20thcentury, and recently because of land use reforms and the new market exposure (Fujita, 2006, Rigg, 2005, p.15).
Let me take you back to the early 2000s, when the government of Laos forcibly evicted tribal communities from their forest territory in order to build an electric dam. Consequently, the tribes could not proceed with their old life as hunters and live of the land any longer. Although modernization projects degrading or demolishing livelihoods is not restricted to Laos alone, it shows how modernization schemes may affect individuals and, in this case, entire tribal societies. However, this eviction tragedy also carries a story of positive change as there exist a will to make the world a better place for the children and communities in Laos.
Aay Sinthala, having experienced the eviction himself, decided to take charge of the future of his own kin and create opportunities for his community. As a result, he established Aay’s Village as a development project in Muang Fuang. Aay’s Village started because there was a need for resources and support during the integration into a new, foreign and capitalized world. This, by ensuring quality education through critical thinking, IT, and later, ensuring sustainable development through cleaning the jungle from plastic pollution.
As Laos’ old history is rooted in the mindset of having utmost respect of nature, this way of living has in many ways collided with the commodification of resources and policies aimed to enhance state power over forest spaces and peoples in the 21th century (Nevins and Peluso, 2008). Consequently, having “growth at all costs”, the market facilitates the need for the Laotian people to become consumers who take an active part in the new world, rather than making sure development happens in a reasonable manner more attached to Laos’ history of practicing a sustainable way of living. As Jonathan Rigg (2005) argues: “there is both the time and space to be moderate and pragmatic”. As the plastic pollution infiltrates every market corner and every sideroad, we need to develop smart solutions and build on the history of the Laotian culture. With this, let us bring in some of the old, living in harmony with nature, and have less focus on embracing everything that is new.
What has become clear is how Laos moves extensively in the direction of closer market integration. Accordingly, more rural areas see an increase in imported and manufactured products. As statistics show, the plastic consumption and production are to increase at a moderate rate in the future (Mordor Intelligence, 2018). Traditionally, most people in Laos had a subsistence lifestyle, and their waste was primarily organic and decayed quickly. However, today most products are comprised of plastic, litter, dust and dirt, oil and grease, particles of rubber compounds from tires, particles of metal, glass and other non-biodegradable materials. Moreover, sanitary landfills are limited in Laos, and community dumps are poorly managed which remains a deep-rooted problem in the country.
To grasp the environmental impact of plastic in Laos let us look on some numbers. On average, the generation of municipal solid waste is 0.70 kg per capita per day. Naturally, piles of trash occupy city streets and yards and can be seen floating in creeks, rivers, lakes, and rice paddies throughout the country, especially along the main thoroughfare that runs through the capital Vientiane. It can take over 450 years for a plastic water bottle to decompose, and for plastic foam, most likely never. Cigarette Butts take 10-12 years to decompose. Aluminum cans take 200-250 years to decompose, batteries takes 100 year to decompose, tinfoil does not biodegrade and this is only the start of a long list of trash that takes years to decompose. Such plastic pollution adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat, and humans. In Laos, one “solution” up until now has been to burn plastic in the jungle, if not just thrown wherever convenient. Curbing plastic waste and pollution is a complex problem, given its diffuse nature and the link with market behaviour. Furthermore, there is no clear incentive for consumers and producers to find sustainable solutions that would generate less waste or litter.
Let’s make a sustainable change, together!
In Aay’s Village we have experienced considerable amounts of plastic pollution in the village we operate, which we have sought to do something about.
Aay’s Village clean the jungle through the Ecobrick’s project. An Ecobrick is a plastic bottle packed solid with non-biological waste to make a re-useable building block. Moreover, there is no need of fancy machines, special skills, engineers or politicians to get started with making a sustainable change. At Aay’s Village we are using ecobricks to build everything from indoor furniture to flowerbeds in gardens and parks. Essentially, what ecobricks do is enable people of any community to put the potential problematic properties of plastic to good use. Even better, ecobricks is fundamentally a local process which gets us thinking. The awareness that grows, puts us on a road towards to consuming and using plastic wisely. Though we cannot go back to what once was before plastic infiltrated the lives of the many inhabitants of Laos, moreover the world, we can use our knowledge to make sustainable usage of plastic materials. However, we are not alone in the fight against plastic pollution. Positive change for a more environmentally friendly Laos is also shown through Vientiane Urban Development Administration Authority (VUDAA) that have come together to chart a more sustainable waste disposal system (VUDAA, 2014). Moreover, the NGO green Vientiane produce recyclable bags are now being sold in downtown cafes and markets. There exists a will to recycle and make Laos clean from the infection of plastic waste, but we should not just stop there. At Aay’s Village we focus on learning the generation of tomorrow and the community of Muang Fuang about the environment, both through building Eco bricks and hold workshops that focus on how to define their environment, and how to make sustainable change. Moreover, we should aim to work with village offices and shops to reach the maximum number of people through learning them about the need to take care of the nature. As the monks respect the natural environment, and the people respect the monks, we should aim work with the monks in the temples. Within this context I will finish with a quote from the Buddish Statement of Ecology (1996):
“We need to live as the Buddha taught us to live, in peace and harmony with nature, but this must start with ourselves. If we are going to save this planet we need to seek a new ecological order, to look at the life we lead and then work together for the benefit of all; unless we work together no solution can be found. By moving away from self-centeredness, sharing wealth more, being more responsible for ourselves, and agreeing to live more simply, we can help decrease much of the suffering in the world,”
Written by Maria Elena Olsen
Edited by Åshild Aarø
Fujita, Y. (2006) Understanding the History of Change in Laos: An Important Premise for Development Efforts, Mountain Research and Development, 26(3), p. 197-199
Manolom T. and Promphaking B. (2016) Measuring development and human wellbeing in the Lao PDR: Exploring Laos' development indicators, Kasetsart Journal of Social Sciences, 37(2), Pages 73-81
Mordor Intelligence (2018) Laos Plastics Market - Segmented by Type, Technology, Application and Geography - Growth, Trends, and Forecast (2018 - 2023), Mordor Intelligence.
Rigg, J. (2005) Living with Transition in Laos: Market Integration in Southeast Asia. Oxon: Routledge
United Nations in Lao PDR. 2015. “Country Analysis Report: Lao PDR.” Accessed 12 September 2018. VUDAA (Vientiane Urban Development and Administration Authority). (2014). Report of municipal solid waste management in Vientiane City. Vientiane City.