By BambooLao initiator and founder Arounothay Khoungkhakoune.
After working as a German speaking tour leader for many years in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, I have realized how much plastic waste is being produced and thrown away in these underdeveloped countries. Growing up in Germany, I was well educated in waste management and environmental issues. Unfortunately, I was lacking in ancient knowledge which I learned from living in the forest.
Three years ago I moved into a forest, only 7km from the world heritage protected city of Luangprabang province. I live in a Khmu-dominated village of mostly hunters and gatherers, whose lives depend on the variety of plants and fruits that the forest provides. However, one day I was shocked when my neighbor chopped down over 300 bamboo plants from the garden. I told him not to cut trees, but he just laughed and replied, “bamboo is not a tree, didn’t you know? It is the fastest growing plant on the planet.” Hearing this felt like I had gotten slapped across the face. The most heavily bombed country on earth has the fastest growing plant on the planet.
Yet these villagers, both young and old, wanted to teach me more about the forest. One day they took me out on an eight hour trek into the Phou Phoueng mountain to harvest, according to them, the ‘best bamboo roots in the world.’ The potential of bamboo straws was realized when some of the kids from the village brought some samples they have harvested from the forest. With their ancient Lao wisdom and my Western environmental awareness, BambooLao was born.
For thousands of years life in the tiny hermit kingdom of Laos has remained much the same. Protected by the mountainous terrain the Lao people have been free to practice their unique beliefs which combine animism and Theravada Buddhism….
These spiritual beliefs gave birth to rich cultural traditions in mythology, sculpture, hand weaving of textiles, and temple architecture. Living in this remote and isolated land has necessitated the development of a variety of hunting, foraging, and farming methods, dependent on the climate and terrain which has enabled Lao people to have self-sustaining communities and villages when contact with the outside world was sparse.
Throughout history, the Lao people have used this keen wit and knowledge of the natural world to protect themselves from colonialist imperialism, and more recently, one of the worst acts of war in modern times as the U.S. Government unleashed the biggest aerial bombing assaults in human history on Lao PDR. Lao people have also used their deep spiritual beliefs to emerge from this turbulent time with forgiving and open hearts.
This delicate balance between man, nature, and the spirits is now under increasing threat as the controversial impacts of globalization and capitalism encroach rapidly. As Lao further transitions to a globalized economic system, we see both the need and opportunity to safe-guard and add value to human and environmental health, an issue of particular importance in a region where people are intrinsically linked with nature and have been traditionally dependent on the strength of their culture, community, and the health of the surrounding environment.
Unfortunately, the sustainability of these traditional livelihoods and culture has been increasingly diminished as a result of prioritizing economic ‘progress’ in Lao, which promotes non-progressive national environmental policies, decreased availability of forested land, disrespect for traditional livelihoods, as well as the spread of cash cropping and climate change. All these factors have caused compounded impairment of natural regeneration of the forest in which the majority of Lao people still depend. The negative relationship between imbalanced capitalism, natural resource exploitation, and the health and value of sustainable subsistence livelihoods and culture has never been greater.