What do you know about Laos? If, like me, your knowledge is sketchy, you might know that it’s a small land-locked country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, that it was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, and that it has a communist government. Maybe you or family members have backpacked through on the “banana pancake trail” of South East Asia, stopping off to sample the sleepy islands of the Mekong Delta, drink-fuelled tubing in Vang Vieng or the beautiful, chilled, French colonial former capital Luang Prabang.
What you probably don’t know is that Laos, with its verdant, tree-covered mountains and low population density – 7 million people in an area the size of the UK – is a precious but fragile remnant of botanical richness. Laos contains some of the last great tracts of wilderness in South East Asia, including the largest remaining tropical rainforests and some of the most pristine natural landscapes in the region. It is home to at least 8000 known species of plants as well as many more unknown to science.
This priceless resource is under constant threat from the pressures we all know about but seem unable to combat. Like other countries in the region it is being stripped by avaricious illegal logging industry, mining, and the hydropower industry. The forest is also threatened by damaging indigenous farming practices such as slash and burn.
When land was cheap and plentiful, traditional methods of slash and burn worked fine. When your plot was depleted you just moved to the next bit of forest and left the area to regenerate naturally for five years. But it is not fine when the population increases and uncultivated land becomes scarce.
© Harriet Stewart-Jones
Upland rice is the most important crop in the hilly regions of northern Laos. It is typically grown under a rotational slash and burn cultivation system without fertilizers. A five-year fallow period allows natural fertility to rebuild and farmers use their knowledge of traditional rice varieties to select the best plants to use in their conditions. Centuries of selection have led to an amazing diversity of traditional rice varieties, reflected in the existence of over 3000 distinct names for rice. In recent times, however, as the pressures on land have increased, farmers are reducing fallow periods to 2–3 years. This leads to decline in fertility, loss of biodiversity, weed problems and soil erosion. In order to sustain crop yields, upland farmers have to select rice varieties that are well adapted to low soil fertility, reducing the number of varieties used. And healthy soil-retention practices, such as mulching and composting, are just not known about in the villages and farms of Laos.
This makes education and training key to reversing the damage caused by over-intensive slash and burn, and that is what lies behind the vision of the proposed permaculture project at Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden in northern Laos.
In November 2016, after eight years of hard work by a dedicated crew, the very first botanic garden in Laos opened in a beautiful wooded area on the banks of the Mekong. Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden has been designed to combine botanical collections, scientific research, and agricultural training along with a centre dedicated to sustainable tourism. Developed in collaboration with international botanical partner gardens such as the Singapore Botanic Garden, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden in Chiang Mai, Pha Tad Ke has made good progress in research, education and conservation projects. It aims to make a real difference to the protection of the biodiversity and culture of Laos.
The team at Pha Tad Ke believe that preserving the biodiversity of Laos is imperative, not just locally for the people who live there but also for the rest of the world too. Who knows what life-saving medicine could be developed from some rare jungle plant in future? Who knows what variety of rice may prove to have resistance to disease?
Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden is situated across the river from the ancient town of Luang Prabang, the cultural and spiritual capital of Laos. In 1995 Luang Prabang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its outstanding cultural, historic and architectural value and the harmony that exists between natural and built environment. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South East Asia.
Getting to Pha Tad Ke is a trip in itself. It entails a glorious 15-minute boat ride along the majestic Mekong River. You travel in a beautifully restored traditional river boat, passing by wonderful scenery, tree-clad mountains, water buffalo, fishermen casting their nets from long-tailed canoes, and sandbanks planted up with peanuts and sweet potatoes.
© Trevann Fanthorpe
At the garden you are greeted warmly by the staff and given a brief introduction to the gardens. PTK employs local villagers wherever possible, providing jobs and helping to nurture skills in gardening, science and hospitality. At present about 50 staff members work at the 25-hectare site, which is divided into zones – ethno-botany, arboretum, ginger garden, limestone habitat, bamboo garden and palm garden – with thatched buildings housing an excellent café, shop and offices.
The centrepiece of the garden is the ethno-botany zone, 10 round bamboo stockades showcasing comprehensive collections of native species plants with traditional uses in medicine, dyeing, fibre, food, and spiritual practices. This area, which focuses on the relationship between Lao people and their plants, is not only fascinating for the western visitor but also an opportunity to preserve the traditional knowledge of ethnic minorities, which has been passed down orally, making it vulnerable to the pressures of modern times. All the plants are carefully labelled with Latin binomials as well as descriptions in English and Lao. Western gardeners will be intrigued to learn about the many uses indigenous tribes have for plants we generally know as garden plants – jatropha for poison, indigo for dying cloth, euphorbias to ward off evil spirits!
© Harriet Stewart-Jones
The next, important phase of development in the Pha Tad Ke vision is to create a working permaculture demonstration farm where small-scale farmers will learn new skills in land-use, soil conservation, forest gardening and productivity. Pha Tad Ke is collaborating with the Bali-based IDEP Foundation, which has been developing permaculture solutions and sustainable living practices in Indonesia since 1999. IDEP focuses on training, offering their experience and published resources to other communities and NGOs in the region. Pha Tad Ke will work with IDEP to develop culturally sensitive workshops and training manuals specifically for Lao farmers.
Reminiscent of the Eden Project in England, Pha Tad Ke hits the sweet spot in combining academic research, botanical collections, solid conservation aims and sustainable tourism. But as with all projects, it needs funding. If anyone has ideas of suitable funding sources to help Pha Tad Ke achieve its permaculture farm vision, please do get in touch, email Harriet: [email protected]
For more information on the project, visit www.pha-tad-ke.com