• Indigenous peoples in Laos

    Indigenous peoples in Laos

The Indigenous World 2021: Laos

With a population of just over 7 million,[1] Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic or Lao PDR, is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in mainland Southeast Asia. The ethnic Lao, comprising around half of the population, dominate the country economically and culturally. There are, however, some provinces and districts where the number of Indigenous people exceeds that of the Lao and where their culture is prominent. There are four ethnolinguistic families in Laos; Lao-Tai language-speaking groups represent two-thirds of the population. The other third speaks languages belonging to the Mon-Khmer, Sino-Tibetan and Hmong-Ew-Hmien families and these are considered to be the Indigenous Peoples of Laos. Officially, all ethnic groups have equal status in Laos, and the concept of Indigenous Peoples is not recognised by the government, despite the fact that Laos voted in favour of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Lao government uses the term ethnic group to refer to Indigenous people.

The Lao government currently recognises 160 ethnic sub-groups within 50 ethnic groups. Indigenous Peoples, especially those who speak Hmong-Ew-Hmien languages, are unequivocally the most vulnerable groups in Laos. They face territorial, economic, cultural and political pressures and are experiencing various threats to their livelihoods. Their land and resources are increasingly under pressure from pro-investment government development policies and commercial natural resource exploitation. Indigenous people lag behind the majority Lao-Tai at all economic levels. They have worse access to healthcare, lower rates of education, and less access to clean water and sanitation. Indigenous Peoples’ relying on unimproved or surface water ranged from between 20 to 32.5%, compared to just 8.5% of Lao-Tai, and while only 13.9% of Lao-Tai practice open defecation, that percentage rises to between 30.3 to 46.3% among Indigenous Peoples.[2]

Laos has ratified ICERD (1974), CEDAW (1981), CRC (1991), ICCPR (2009). The Lao government, however, severely restricts fundamental rights, including freedom of speech (media), association, assembly and religion, and civil society is closely controlled. Organisations openly focusing on Indigenous Peoples or using related terms in the Lao language are thus not allowed, while open discussions about Indigenous Peoples with the government can be sensitive, especially since the issue is seen as pertaining to special (human) rights.

Decree on Ethnic Groups

The rights of ethnic groups as stated in the Constitution and other policies and laws were detailed and strengthened in the recent Government Decree on Ethnic Groups, finally adopted in March 2020 and which includes provisions to enforce comprehensive support to ethnic groups in rural areas, such as access to infrastructure, education, health, information, justice and gender. However, as pointed out in The Indigenous World 2020,[3] there is room for interpretation of some provisions of the decree (including Article 10.2 on resettlement and Article 10.7 on banning shifting cultivation) which could potentially worsen the already difficult economic and social situation of Indigenous communities.[4]

COVID-19

The Laos government has taken considerable measures to fight against COVID-19. On 3 February, the National Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control was set up to provide appropriate responses and disseminate information to the public. On 29 March, the Prime Minister issued Order No. 06/PM, which comprised of a series of measures, including an order for the public to remain at home, border closures and prohibitions on increases in the prices of food and other essential products.[5]

Despite lacking equipment, medication and medical personnel, as of 31 December only 41 cases had been recorded from COVID-19 in Laos and no deaths.[6] This low figure may in part be due to the low rate of testing and tracing conducted; however, the government’s efforts to educate the public on the pandemic as well as to encourage them to reduce their social contacts have been evaluated positively by independent observers.[7]

The impact of COVID-19 on Lao PDR has thus far been largely socio-economic given that domestic and regional supply chains collapsed, along with local economies and, with them, household incomes and consumer demand.

With a total population of 7.1 million, almost half a million people are estimated to have lost their jobs, and roughly 383,000 people are expected to slide back into poverty, further exacerbating pre-existing inequalities. Food security, already an issue, has become critical, while the disruption of school education could lead to substantial learning losses in a country already facing an education crisis. The initial data on food security and agriculture indicates a visible impact of COVID-19 on sales of farmer produce, as well as on the availability and prices of some food products in Luangnamtha and Bokeo Provinces. It also shows an unemployment spike in many parts of the country, in particular in Attapeu, Bokeo, Luangnamtha, Savannakhet Provinces, and Vientiane Capital, with day labourers being most affected. Overall incomes for farmer households also declined as a result of both a reduced volume of sales and price fluctuations.[8]

The sudden surge in unemployment, as a result of workers who were employed domestically being laid off and migrant workers returning home from abroad, together with losses of income for micro-entrepreneurs, could have a profound impact on Lao PDR’s achievements and progress towards meeting the 2030 SDGs and its ambitions for middle-income status. The socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting the livelihoods and well-being of the most vulnerable, including the poor, elderly, women, children, adolescents, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, migrants and other groups.[9]

Migrant and mobile populations run a high risk of infection as well as being affected by the wider social and economic impacts of COVID-19. This is due to several factors and barriers such as a lack of or inadequate access to proper information on prevention; limitations in or exclusion from accessing diagnostic and treatment services; cramped and crowded living and working conditions; stigma and discrimination; and other factors.[10]

It was also reported that women’s domestic workloads increased disproportionally during the lockdown. Moreover, a survey commissioned by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) found that 3.3% of men and 3.2% of women had noted an increase in arguments within the household, and 5.3% of men and 4.4% of women reported seeing increased violence in their “households or neighbourhood” during the lockdown.[11]

Children and breastfeeding women in poor households are at risk of deteriorating health due to reduced food consumption and nutritional intake. Rising unemployment and falling incomes due to the pandemic further exacerbate women’s, including girls’, risk of falling victim to sexual exploitation and human trafficking. As they try to find a way to survive the crisis, this vulnerable group of women and girls has become more exposed to the risk of severe exploitation.[12]

As of 30 May 2020, 82,976 people had been reached with mental and psychosocial support messages through social media, Lao PDR Women Union Hotline counselling and other awareness raising activities provided by the Ministry of Health.[13] Additionally, the government broadcast TV/radio spots and public announcements on violence against children, child online protection and hotline numbers for violence in Lao and Indigenous languages.

In overcoming these challenges, it will be critical to ensure that no-one is left behind and that priority is placed on reaching those furthest behind first in the country’s recovery efforts to avoid disproportionate humanitarian consequences and intensifying inequalities.

COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples

Traditionally, many Indigenous communities in Laos separate the safe space of their village from the outside world, where potentially dangerous spirits and entities roam. Some erect village “gates”, using wood, bamboo and symbolic amulets to delineate the boundary between the two, protecting the village’s inhabitants. In line with these customs and in response to the pandemic, communities belonging to Mon-Khmer speaking groups in Dakcheung District of Sekong Province placed human effigies along the roads as a marker and warning to travellers from outside and who may be carrying the virus in order to frighten away any bad entities that could enter the village, be it evil spirits or viruses.[14]

Impact on Indigenous Peoples’ health

While isolation may be an effective way to protect the population from becoming infected, it does not substitute for the inadequate healthcare infrastructure existing in remote areas where a large proportion of Indigenous Peoples live. Indigenous Peoples often have to travel great distances to access qualified medical attention, while the medical structures that are available lack modern technologies and communications.

To bridge the gap in access to and comprehension of pandemic-related information, the UN Communications Group supported the translation of key messages related to COVID-19 risk education into Indigenous languages such as Akha, Hmong, Khmu and Souay, broadcast through community radio stations in five provinces and displayed on distribution trucks travelling to 2,000 villages.[15]

Impact on Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods, income and food security

Indigenous Peoples of Laos have been among the groups hardest hit by the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. And this situation has been further exacerbated by an already higher poverty rate compared to the dominant population and a higher reliance on traditional practices, which are being threatened by the reduction in natural habitats, biodiversity and climate change.

During the lockdown, Indigenous Peoples, including the Mon-Khmer, Mien, Hmong, and Sino-Tibetan groups, were found to have higher unemployment rates (76.9 percent) than the Lao-Tai majority (62.8 percent).[16] For many Indigenous people, who mostly live in rural and relatively isolated areas, earnings from day labouring may be the most important source of cash income for their families, especially the poor. The UNDP commissioned a survey and a rapid assessment by the World Food Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (May 2020) found that day labourers in both agriculture and non-agriculture were significantly affected.[17]

For Indigenous communities that have been resettled by the state and who have lost access to natural resources due to various types of concessions (mining, hydropower, industrial plantation) and who rely on wage labour in urban centres or neighbouring Thailand, the pandemic has exacerbated their vulnerabilities. The situation has become even more catastrophic for single-headed households and persons with a disability.[18]

Food insecurity in Indigenous communities goes beyond the impact of COVID-19. Climate change has been the cause of a long-term impact on food security, especially for the rural poor, as droughts and floods in 2019 put roughly 76,000 people at high risk of food shortages by March of this year, as pointed out in a rapid assessment by the WFP and FAO (May 2020).[19]

From June to July 2020, the Regional Community Forestry Training Centre for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC) and the FAO undertook research in seven Asian countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Viet Nam into how forest communities were dealing with COVID-19 and lockdowns in order to understand whether community forests were helping people to cope and to establish what kind of support they need most to recover and build back better.[20]

Based on findings from phase one of the research, RECOFTC estimates that personal savings generated by selling timber and non-timber forest products from community forests helped people cope during the first months of the lockdown. Eighty percent of respondents said the lockdown harmed their livelihoods or food security. Half reported being unable to sell their forest products because of travel restrictions, a lack of buyers or depressed prices that made trading unprofitable.

The negative impacts of the pandemic were greater for women, with women bearing greater workloads because of home-schooling and caring for the family, and they faced increasing rates of domestic violence and abuse. When asked what they needed to cope and build back better after the pandemic, three-quarters of respondents said financial support.

Education

There is also strong inequality across ethnic groups when it comes to accessing education, as children from Indigenous groups have lower attendance rates than children who belong to Lao-Tai groups. Most of this inequality across ethnolinguistic groups is explained by socio-economic differences, such as wealth and place of residence. However, the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to further exacerbate these pre-existing disparities in education. The overlap between these factors also needs to be acknowledged.

For example, children and young people with disabilities from the poorest families in the Mon-Khmer ethnic group, the one that has the lowest school attendance rates in the country, the highest drop out rates and which is among the lowest in terms of socio-economic status, will be more vulnerable.[21]

 

Steeve Daviau, anthropologist, has been working on Indigenous Peoples’ issues for over 20 years in Laos. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here

 

Notes and references

[2] OHCHR. “Statement by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his visit to Lao PDR, 18-28 March 2019.” 28 March 2019. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24417&LangID=E

[3] “Laos.” In The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 274-281. IWGIA, 2020. https://iwgia.org/images/yearbook/2020/IWGIA_The_Indigenous_World_2020.pdf

[4] Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs (DOERA). “Decree on Ethnic Groups, No. 207/ GoL.” Ministry of Home Affairs, Vientiane, Lao PDR, 20 March 2020.

[5] Lao People’s Democratic Republic. “The Prime Minister’s Order on reinforcement measures on containment, prevention and full response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 29 March 2020. http://www.mpwt.gov.la/attachments/article/2185/PM's%20Order%20No%2006PM%20on%20COVID-19.pdf

[6] Data from Covid National Committee. Facebook, September, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/CIEH.MoH.Lao

[7] OXFAM. “COVID-19 and Responses from Laos and the Greater Mekong Subregion.” 2020. https://laos.oxfam.org/latest/stories/covid-19-and-responses-laos-and-greater-mekong-subregion

[8] UN Country Team in Lao PDR.“UN Lao PDR Socio-Economic Response Framework to COVID-19.” UN SDG, September 2020. https://laopdr.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-12/UN%20Lao%20PDR_Socio-Economic%20Response%20to%20COVID-19_Draft%20as%20of%2029%20September.pdf

[9] Southichack, Mana, Phothong Sikiphong and Boumy Inthakesone. “Socioeconomic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Lao PDR.”UNDP Lao PDR Office, 31 August 2020. https://www.laomfa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Socioeconomic-Impact-Assessment-of-COVID-19-in-Lao-PDR-31-AUGUST-2020.pdf

[10] UN Country Team in Laos. “United Nation Lao PDR. COVID – 19 Situation Report, No. 2 (Reporting period 1-31 May 2020).” United Nations Lao PDR, 13 July 2020. https://reliefweb.int/report/lao-peoples-democratic-republic/united-nations-lao-pdr-covid-19-situation-report-no-2

[11] Southichack, Mana, Phothong Sikiphong and Boumy Inthakesone. “Socioeconomic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Lao PDR.”UNDP Lao PDR Office, 31 August, 2020. https://www.laomfa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Socioeconomic-Impact-Assessment-of-COVID-19-in-Lao-PDR-31-AUGUST-2020.pdf

[12] Southichack, Mana, Phothong Sikiphong and Boumy Inthakesone. “Socioeconomic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Lao PDR.”UNDP Lao PDR Office, 31 August 2020. https://www.laomfa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Socioeconomic-Impact-Assessment-of-COVID-19-in-Lao-PDR-31-AUGUST-2020.pdf

[13] UN Country Team in Laos. “United Nation Lao PDR. COVID – 19 Situation Report, No. 2 (Reporting period 1-31 May 2020).” United Nations Lao PDR, 13 July 2020. https://reliefweb.int/report/lao-peoples-democratic-republic/united-nations-lao-pdr-covid-19-situation-report-no-2

[14] UNESCO, Intangible Cultural Heritage. “Effigies to ward off COVID-19 in Laos.” 2021. https://ich.unesco.org/en/living-heritage-experience-and-covid-19-pandemic-01124?id=00021

[15] UN Country Team in Lao PDR.“UN Lao PDR Socio-Economic Response Framework to COVID-19.” UN SDG, September 2020. https://laopdr.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-12/UN%20Lao%20PDR_Socio-Economic%20Response%20to%20COVID-19_Draft%20as%20of%2029%20September.pdf

[16] Southichack, Mana, Phothong Sikiphong and Boumy Inthakesone. “Socioeconomic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Lao PDR.”UNDP Lao PDR Office, 31 August 2020. https://www.laomfa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Socioeconomic-Impact-Assessment-of-COVID-19-in-Lao-PDR-31-AUGUST-2020.pdf

[17] Southichack, Mana, Phothong Sikiphong and Boumy Inthakesone. “Socioeconomic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Lao PDR.”UNDP Lao PDR Office, 31 August 2020. https://www.laomfa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Socioeconomic-Impact-Assessment-of-COVID-19-in-Lao-PDR-31-AUGUST-2020.pdf

[18] Daviau, Steeve. Baseline study – Community Participatory Mapping for the Community Based Inclusive Development (CBID) Project in Chomphet District, Luangprabang Province, Lao PDR. Christoffel Blindenmisssion (CMB) & Association for Rural Mobilization and Improvement (ARMI), 2020.

[19] Southichack, Mana, Phothong Sikiphong and Boumy Inthakesone. “Socioeconomic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Lao PDR.”UNDP Lao PDR Office, 31 August 2020. https://www.laomfa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Socioeconomic-Impact-Assessment-of-COVID-19-in-Lao-PDR-31-AUGUST-2020.pdf

[20] RECOFTC. “New research shows community forests help people cope with COVID-19.”28 October 2020. https://www.recoftc.org/news/new-research-shows-community-forests-help-people-cope-covid-19

[21] UN Country Team in Lao PDR.“UN Lao PDR Socio-Economic Response Framework to COVID-19.” UN SDG, September 2020. https://laopdr.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-12/UN%20Lao%20PDR_Socio-Economic%20Response%20to%20COVID-19_Draft%20as%20of%2029%20September.pdf.

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