Linhthong La-Intong has seen many changes in Sobphouan, the village he began calling his home some 13 years ago. But there is one thing that hasn’t changed – the forest.
“I will never forget the forest back in 2006,” he tells us. “The wild forest remains the same until today.”
It’s late in the evening when we arrive at La-Intong’s house. The smell of rice cooking on a wood stove fills the air. But even though it’s nearly dinner time and the rain falls noisily around us, La-Intong, 48, speaks eagerly about his work and his village’s efforts to move towards sustainable rattan production with the help of WWF.
An important part of this is certifying and protecting the wild forest where rattan and other valuable non-timber forest products (NTFPs) grow.
La-Intong, the head of Sobphouan’s patrolling group, estimates that the number of monkeys, deer and wild pigs in the forest have increased in the last ten years and there’s very little, if any, conflict between villagers and wildlife.
The picture is in stark contrast to many other parts of Laos where people hunt wildlife either for food or because the animals eat their crops.
But in Bolikhamxay Province in central Laos, where Sobphoun is located, villagers have found a more sustainable source of income in the form of rattan.
In the ten years since La-Intong switched from fishing and farming to growing and selling rattan shoots, his income has more than tripled.
“I’m proud of my product,” he says. “Before the project came, I didn’t know how to plant rattan seedlings. Now selling rattan shoots is my main occupation.”
Rattan is a naturally renewable palm that grows in the tropical regions of Africa and Asia and is used for furniture, handicrafts and building material, among other uses. An NTFP that’s relatively easy to harvest and has multiple uses, it can help alleviate pressure on natural forests by providing local communities with an alternative source of income.
Rattan is an invaluable part of rural people's livelihoods in Laos but over-harvesting and land conversion is causing a rapid decline of natural rattan.
WWF has been working with communities and government officials in Bolikhamxay Province and neighbouring Xekong and Saravan provinces since 2006 – and in southern Laos since 2009 – to develop a viable and sustainable management and supply chain model that ensures the forest is protected while also contributing to local livelihood.
The project, supported by IKEA, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), provides capacity building, funding and training to villagers on rattan harvesting and production.
It is part of wider WWF efforts in the Greater Mekong region – particularly Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – to establish a sustainable rattan supply chain from natural forests and create income from NTFPs.
In Laos, villagers have been trained to manage their inventory and harvest, split and weave rattan that’s sold domestically and is also exported to countries like Thailand, Switzerland, Sweden and the US.
“Our approach is simple – people first,” says Bouavanh Phachomphonh, WWF-Laos Rattan & Bamboo Project Manager. “We focus on strengthening local livelihoods by building villagers’ capacity to develop alternative sources of income and manage their forests sustainably. "
A clear benefit sharing system has been set up with the consensus of villagers, under which rattan harvesters agree to contribute 17 per cent of their income to community projects and forest management.
“On the other side of the production chain, we’re helping companies strengthen their capacities in designing, marketing and exporting rattan products,” Phachomphonh adds.
In 2011, Bolikhamxay Province gained international acclamation with the first ever Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of natural rattan forest, covering 1,142 hectares.
FSC certification ensures that forests are well managed and socially beneficial.
Eighty per cent of people in rural areas in Laos rely on agriculture as the main source of income.
The story was very much the same in Bolikhamxay Province, and the rattan project was initially met with resistance.
“At first, village members didn’t fully understand the benefits of rattan weaving,” says Khensy Milatid, Deputy Chief of Thaveng Village.
Villagers feared that the project would exploit them and distrust against authorities ran strong.
It’s a cloudy morning when we meet Milatid, a backdrop of mountains ensconcing this picturesque village of 1,126 families.
“The WWF project helped us in training and giving us encouragement to do this work that now provides us with sustainable income. The project acts like a bridge between us and the market, the outside world,” says Milatid.
As a group of women weave baskets, smiling shyly for our cameras, Milatid tells us how his and others view of rattan has changed since they started weaving.
“We used to see rattan just as a plant. We didn’t see much value in it; we would chop it down and collect stumps for food,” he says. “Now I see it as something valuable for our life. Without the forest, it’s hard for me to live.”
Stable income is the most important benefit that villagers have received from harvesting and weaving rattan, a benefit not always afforded by agriculture and farming.
“People like Mr. Milatid are able to support their children to study at a higher level of school, which they wouldn’t be able to do before,” says Chanpheng Vivongkone, Head of Khamkeut District Agricultural and Forestry Office who advises and works closely with village handicraft groups.
Between July 2014 and June 2015, 125 households in Khamkeut district earned nearly LAK 230.5 million (US $29,000) from selling rattan seedlings, shoots and products.
“It’s a huge difference than when we started. Today, when I go visit, I feel more welcome and they like to see my face more often,” Vivongkone adds laughingly.
At the entrance to Danlao rattan factory in Vientiane Province, intricately woven rattan baskets, lamps and trays adorn the shelves on the wall.
A strong smell of fresh polish wafts in from the next room where women are skillfully weaving rattan furniture. The factory is relatively noiseless.
Other than the sound of occasional drilling and hammering, there is only a quiet chatter where a small group of women sit, skillfully threading each piece of rattan into pre-built frames.
The ease at which their fingers move belies the painstaking nature of the job.
Danlao, a family owned enterprise, employs some 30 people, many of whom have been with the company for more than ten years.
Danlao sources rattan and finished products from villages that are part of WWF’s sustainable rattan project.
“WWF came to us at the right time, when we were facing a lack of raw supply,” says Danlao owner Saykham Phetmany. “In the past, our company and also the provinces where we harvested rattan didn't do surveys and we didn’t have actual production figures so the government did not approve the quota to harvest. When the project came, we identified and conducted surveys, which helped us to increase the quota and to support our workers to have work.”
Rattan trade is a major source of income not just in Laos, but neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Vietnam as well, totaling some US $4 billion per year.
Though an important NTFP that can be produced sustainably and without harming wild forests, rattan production has suffered in Laos in recent years due to harvest quotas. Additionally, there are only a handful of local companies that can process and produce rattan products, and only Danlao has FSC Chain of Custody certification for rattan processing and production.
At the village level, forest conversion for cash crops remains a threat, particularly in new communities not familiar with the value and potential of rattan.
Despite these challenges, the government has recognised the value of rattan as an important source of livelihood to local communities and officials are playing an integral role in countering forest conversion.
“There is a strong sense of ownership among all the people involved in the project – from provincial level to villagers,” says WWF’s Bouavanh Phachomphonh. “We’ve successfully managed to bridge the historic gap that has existed between people who are responsible for planning and those who are responsible for implementation.
One of the most important buyers of rattan products from Laos is Coop in Switzerland. In September 2016, the third shipment of Easter baskets was sent to Coop, one of the largest retailers in Switzerland.
For people like Chaiy Lathsom, a weaver, Switzerland may be far away, but the impact that the consumers of these baskets will have on her family’s livelihood is immense. Since she started weaving, Lathsom’s household income has increased from LAK 20,800 (US $2.6) per month to LAK 712,500 (US $88) per month.
“I feel proud of myself that I can make additional income to help support my family,” says Lathsom, a mother of three. “I feel happy and I feel confident about my future.”
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