Back in Laos

July 6, 2023

The Crawford Fund has had a mentoring and volunteer program in Laos since 2009 and work was maintained throughout COVID-19 thanks to the great relationships built in that time. So many have benefited from the work overseen by Professors Lester Burgess and Deirdre Lemerle including around 20 young volunteers, ten mentors on short-term placements, and other interns and post graduate students also on short-term visits. They have all been working to improve crop and soil health, biosecurity, food safety, weed control and, ultimately, food security.

Matt working with farmers in Laos to build capacity for mechanised weed control (left) and transplanting rice (right).

A former volunteer was Matt Champness who is now back in Laos after a hiatus thanks to COVID-19 and a PhD. In addition to an ABC interview, we recently e-interviewed Matt as he took a break from the field for him to explain his current work, supported by the Crawford Fund’s NSW Committee. You can follow Matt with his regular contributions to our Instagram account.

Q. Why are you back in Laos?

I’m building grassroots capacity for mechanised weed control in a Laos direct seeded rice context. It’s related to an ACIAR project on weed management in direct seeded rice. There is a declining agricultural workforce in Laos with youth leaving rural areas for greater employment opportunities in urban area or abroad, thus the cost of hired labour has greatly increase due to shortage and the fact that transplanting rice is a drudgery. Moving to direct seeded rice can save an estimated 25 labour days per hectare and therefore significantly reduce production costs. However, weed control is greatly reduced, with the task of hand weeding often left to women and girls. This project seeks to reduce the burden on these women and girls to free up their time for more worthwhile, economic and social activities.

Q. Where are you based in Laos?

I’m back in Savannakhet (SVK) in Southern Laos. Savanh is the largest province in Laos and the largest rice growing province in the country. It is flat, and hot!

Q. How has Crawford Fund supported you?

Crawford Fund has provided funding to conduct a series of farmer field days to train male and female trainees on the use of multi-row cultivators and the importance of early season weed control in direct seeded rice (DSR). This involves training farmers as well as provincial and district extension staff.

Q. Are you mentoring someone or working on your own project?

This project is focused on building capacity of provincial and district extension staff and farmers on the range of weed control options available to farmers in different soil conditions and at different times of the rice season. Mr Phetsamone Simali is a key mentee in this project. He is a very experienced and capable extension officer, having worked in direct seeded rice for over a decade and therefore can offer much advice to farmers on the transition from transplanted to direct seeded rice and the potential issues. Continuing to build his knowledge of the various integrated weed management (IWM) options is of significant benefit as he often is engaged to train other extension personnel.

Further, this project is working with established farmer groups, one of which is a farmer co-operative established by small-holder farmers in MuangKai village in Southern SVK. The co-operative stands out in Savannakhet in having a successful business in providing the service of mechanised land leveling, land preparation and combine harvesting. The group understands the benefits of DSR, but adoption is limited by a lack of viable weed control options (they prefer to avoid herbicides) and have expressed interest in multi-row weed cultivation as a possible means to adopt DSR. Working with this group offers a viable means to adoption of the technique.

Q. Can you provide some reflections of your return?

I was based in Savannakhet for a year in 2019-20 as a volunteer through the Australian Government funded volunteer program, supported by the Crawford Fund, where I worked at the provincial agriculture and forestry department (PAFO) to build capacity within the department and smallholder farmers on the concept of a weed seedbank and importance of early season weed control. In this visit, I am again working with Mr Phetsamone Simali from PAFO and some of the same farmers – they still remember the antics of “Mr Weed”. Since my last visit, Phetsamone’s English has improved remarkedly. When I arrived in 2019, he hardly spoke English and a large part of my time was spent helping him with his English and building confidence. With this confidence, he has continued to learn English with the help of the internet.

The farm labour shortage worsened since I was here last time, and with CPI humming alone at 40%, the buying power of the Lao people is greatly diminished as they rely heavily on imports from Thailand. Whilst lowland subsistence farmers are not affected by the impact of increased coffee prices, as they couldn’t afford them anyway, they are heavily impacted by increased costs of farm machinery, fertiliser, fuel etc which has gone up significantly in real terms for the Lao farmers. $1 Australian used buy 6,000 kip, now it is 12,000 kip, (the same trend with the USD and Thai Bhat) yet wages have not increased at such a rate, nor has the price of paddy rice. This means more hours spent farming as labour is not available or unaffordable, reduced fertiliser inputs due to lack of affordability and untimely operations all snowballing to result in more unprofitable rice farmers.

Hence, there has been a significant increase in cassava planting due to greater opportunity for profit, however, at significant land degradation costs. With such high inflation, many are hurting, however the degree of inequality between the villages and the cities seems to have increased. I therefore encourage you to have a think about what you can do to assist with creating a food secure world. For me, it is my time and expertise – trust me, it is the most rewarding thing you will do.