They live in a forested swamp that is submerged by floodwaters for part of the year, eking out an existence on the fish they catch and whatever they can grow or gather. Malaria and malnutrition are rife. To say that the wetland communities of Attapeu province in southernmost Laos are poor would seem a gross understatement.

For government officials back in the capital, therefore, the solution to Attapeu’s problems was much the same as their approach for the rest of their impoverished nation: clear the land, fill the swamps and enable the poor to grow and sell rice. But overturning the natural environment in favor of a cash crop like rice can disrupt traditional livelihoods and leave poor rural communities worse off than they were before.

People think if they have rice, they’re well off,” said Mark Dubois, a British marine biologist who spent almost three years working on a study of Attapeu’s wetland communities for the Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Program. “But rice doesn’t provide for all the needs that people have nutritionally. It’s not a panacea.”

On the contrary, the flooded forest offers a rich provender if it isn’t overexploited. Yet governments in Laos and elsewhere often tend to overlook the importance of aquatic resources to the rural poor. To address this, MWBP, WANI and Health Unlimited, with the support of Lao government and the Food and Agriculture Organization, worked with local villagers to determine the nutritional value of their wetland resources and demonstrate how to better conserve and harness it. The research was published and translated into Lao.  

Through a process, villagers started to mix vegetables and meat into their rice, which they had traditionally eaten only with a fermented fish paste. Promoting better nutrition also meant dispelling a range of food taboos. Pregnant mothers, for example, ate less in a belief that doing so would mean having a smaller baby easier to deliver. And they fed their infants sticky rice because the sugar content kept the babies from crying, despite the fact that feeding them solid food so early inhibits absorption of essential nutrients from milk. 

With the groundwork laid for a better diet, researchers began working with villagers to document the state of their own food resources, both fish and plants. Using the concept of village-based research, villagers catalogued different species’ breeding habits and availability, with an aim to producing a book.  

Shocked to find that some key species were in decline, villagers did something the government had been trying in vain to get them to do for years – they created fish conservation zones. Choosing areas known as key habitats for fish, the villagers prohibited fishing in the zones for a period, and then restrict catches afterwards. Now the fish are so plentiful in the fish conservation zones that word has spread around the province. “Before it was very difficult to find fish. They might catch less than a kilogram a day,” said Vongthong Ngodleusay, an official at Attapeu’s Provincial Agriculture and Forest Office and former co-manager of the MWBP. Now they can catch that much in just a few hours, he said. “So they can use the time in other ways.

Written by Wayne Arnold