Finding alternatives to resettlement

The issue of how to ensure that remote communities have access to transportation and other services to achieve adequate standards of living has often resulted in controversial resettlement schemes*. Now the Lao government is collaborating with the international NGO, Action Contre la Faim, and the European Commission, to offer an alternative.

"In 2004, ACF conducted an internal study of the development effect of resettlement on the communities from the Lao uplands to the plains," the ACF head of mission in Laos, Emmanuel Cibla, told IRIN. "The study found that for resettlement to be a success it has to be properly planned and assisted or poverty can be exacerbated."

He said the study showed higher rates of mortality in the recently resettled villages and a lack of access to farmland and forests, increased food insecurity and vulnerability.

"The government's aim of resettlement was to reduce poverty and abolish slash-and-burn agriculture," Cibla said, adding that in some instances, it did not work. "Our idea was to offer an alternative which would achieve the same goals but in the communities' own environment."

Since the study, the government has established criteria for relocation. They include villages with populations below 200, lack of access to potable water or roads, as well as communities that rely on slash-and-burn cultivation.

The ACF programme works mainly with ethnic minority villages slated for resettlement but with the potential for in-situ rural development. The NGO also occasionally assists communities that have already been resettled on land that offers the potential for rural development.

The primary aim of the programme is to work with the government and villagers to help them increase food security, improve sanitary conditions and reduce poverty, which is the principal driver for relocation. The ACF-assisted projects include installing drinking water systems, prevention of malaria and water-borne diseases, promotion of home gardening, development of paddy agriculture and irrigation and construction of access roads.

Photo: ReliefWeb

Most villagers happy

Most villagers seem happy with the results. Xai is the deputy chief of a village in Long District, Luang Namtha Province, northern Laos. Eight years ago, the government's opium-eradication policy took away his village's primary livelihood at the same time as less land was available for slash-and-burn cultivation.

"Our old mountain site had no potential to develop wet paddy fields and lacked water," Xai said. "Our village chief chose a new place for us to live 22km from town … and when we first moved, we had no vehicle access, no irrigation system, no clean water supply, no school."

Today, this has all changed with the help of the government and the ACF-administered project, according to Xai. Two of his children now attend a new school and with improved agricultural techniques and access to markets, the incomes of the villagers have increased dramatically.

Would Xai want to resettle closer to town? "Not now that we have the water supply, paddies, the road and a school."

Success is not always a given, however. When ACF monitoring team leader Bounpheng first joined the programme, he arrived in a village only to discover that while the ACF-supported cash crop project had increased crop yield, unscrupulous buyers were taking the harvest without paying the villagers who produced the food. The problem was eventually resolved, but highlights the need to ensure villagers have sufficient skills and knowledge to deal with their new circumstances.

Somphone, a government officer from the District Agriculture and Forestry Office working on the ACF programme in Luang Namtha, believes the programme's sustainability lies in the training being provided to district and provincial civil servants. "For example, providing them with project planning skills and effective strategies to mobilise villagers will enable ACF to hand over the project and planning to the provincial and district leadership," Somphone told IRIN.

"The programme here is showing quantitative results," he said. "The objective of village resettlement is to provide access to water supplies, wet paddies and roads. If they can access these facilities locally, then there is no reason to resettle."


* Unsettling Experiences: Internal Resettlement and International Aid Agencies in Laos by Ian G. Baird and Bruce Shoemaker (2007).