As the long line of Laotian women swing their hoes down sharply into the untilled earth and men dig up roots of burned bushes and trees, they are doing more than clearing a rice paddy for one of the poorer families in Phonehome village.
Every drop of sweat is being expended so they and their neighbors will have a more certain food supply in the future.
If Sir and Khoun, the husband and wife who own the land, had to clear the 1.2-acre rice paddy themselves, Sir estimates they might work for five years to do what the 100-plus villagers finished in two days.
Or they would have had to borrow from the bank to pay someone to open their land with equipment — a significant burden for a family able to harvest just enough rice last year to feed themselves and their four children.
With this new paddy, Khoun, who like her husband uses only one name, says she expects to harvest enough rice to sell, giving the family money for other needs, such as health care.
They are among about 80 families who will gain new paddy land — just one part of a five-year project to improve nutrition and food security in Tha Thom, one of the poorest districts in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Implemented by MCC and the district government in 2009, and funded in part through MCC’s account with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, the project focuses on the 10 most impoverished villages in Tha Thom.
In these villages, people survive by eking a living from the land, always trying to stay a step ahead of hunger. Yet, according to an initial assessment done by MCC in five villages, about 23 percent of children under the age of 5 are malnourished.
Rice is the staple food and sometimes the only food eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But the supply is never certain, and weather patterns and growing seasons are becoming more unpredictable.
Increasing the land available for rice paddies and improving rice yields are key.
Villagers also harvest greens, fish and small creatures from the forest to eat, but the forest is being threatened by aggressive logging of virgin hardwoods and companies who pay villagers small amounts to collect natural resources beyond the point of sustainability.
In addition, many people from other districts are relocating to Tha Thom in search of land. At the same time, to make way for large-scale development projects, such as road building and a hydroelectric dam, groups of people within Tha Thom must move closer together.
The increased population stresses available land and food resources. To complicate matters, many village boundaries have never been formally established, increasing the potential of conflicts over land.
As part of this project, MCC is working with the government and village leaders on land mapping. By determining exact village boundaries and what parts of a village’s land are designated as paddy land and forest land, village leaders are better able to prevent conflicts and figure out how to protect limited resources. Today, through this work, all 10 villages have established quotas for how much of certain resources, such as resin and rattan, villagers can harvest from the forest for the companies. Farmers and village leaders also are working together to make sure companies provide fair payment for these resources.
The keys to MCC’s overall efforts, though, are increasing the amount of paddy land and improving the rice yield through irrigation and agricultural training, as well as teaching adults and children to make the best nutritional use of the food sources they do have. (Read more about the nutrition training.)
“To open paddy land, we create more choices for families who don’t have enough food,” says Bounchan Khammoungkhoun, program manager for MCC Lao PDR and overseer of the food security and nutrition project. “The paddy land and the irrigation system save farmers time they can use to help their families and are a good use of land for years to come.”
The irrigation system will provide reliable water to the rice paddies from June to September, the Lao rainy season. Though it seems odd to need irrigation during the rainy season, sometimes the rains don’t come or they stop early, says Khammoungkhoun. “The rice needs four full months of water to grow and reach capacity.”
An added benefit of this project is an extra measure of security from unexploded ordnance, a danger in a country that was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. MCC worked in cooperation with Mines Advisory Group to ensure that land was clear of ordnance before any of these projects began, instead of farmers looking out for ordnance themselves as they worked new land.
Bouakeo Many, an older man from Pou, explained why more than 100 villagers turned out to support this food-for-work irrigation project, financed through MCC’s account with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. “We would like to reduce the poor families in the community,” he says. “If people have rice, there are less poor people.”
Villagers also learn job skills as they work together to build concrete dams and irrigation canals.
“Some people can do construction work in the future, like tie the steel and put the frame on concrete,” says Pasi Vang, a leader in Pou village, who was helping construct a dam there. “We can help other villages who want to build an irrigation system.”
Training always follows the construction of the irrigation system, so villagers know how to maintain the dam and the canals. MCC also offers instruction on how to increase their rice yield.
In Xiangtan village, another of the 10 where MCC works, Serm and her husband, Buesee, have seen their rice yields increase since they took a rice-growing class taught by MCC and Lao government agriculture instructors.
They went to the training, Serm says, because their paddy land was not producing well. At the class she learned to select healthy rice seeds by putting them into a bath of salty water — salty enough that an egg will float. The seeds that float are not good for planting.
She also learned to make compost and other natural fertilizers, as well as how to use a different timing and spacing for planting rice seedlings.
In 2010, Serm tested the new technique on a small portion of the family’s 6 acres. The next year she planted about .12 of an acre. The 150 sacks, or 88 pounds, of rice that she and Buesee harvested before grew to 188 sacks using the new technique.
This year they plan to use the technique for about 2.5 acres. They would do all of their land, she says, but the new technique is more time intensive, and they do not have enough adults in their family to do the work.
The extra yield, however, allowed them to have rice to sell, she says. With an increased income, the family will live better.
Serm is such a believer in the method that she has taught other farmers in her village and other villages how to change their rice-growing techniques. “Many people are open-minded like me,” Serm says. “They are willing to learn new things.”
Around the world, MCC helps provide agricultural training.
$50 helps farmers have the knowledge and resources they need to better grow crops and adjust to changing conditions.