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From Slash-and-burn to Disk Ploughing: The Land Policy and Tractors Behind Erosion and Forest Pioneer Farming in Southern Xayabury Province (Laos)

Jean-Richard Laffort et Marc Dufumier
p. 109-130


Bordering Thailand, the southern part of Xayabury province is engaged in international trade and has experienced agricultural growth like nowhere else in Laos. The rapid transformation from manual slash-and-burn agriculture to mechanized, chemical-based cropping systems is often cited by Laotian authorities as a model of development. But a careful study of changes underway indicates that the reality is far less encouraging than it would appear at first. If many farmers have indeed bolstered their incomes over the last twenty years, it is no less true that some of the poorest peasants have become increasingly poorer and that the new techniques cause serious erosion, as they have not been able to prevent the expansion of cultivated areas on sloping lands.

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1Shifting slash-and-burn agriculture often conjures up a whole variety of negative images. It is said that the peasants who practice this kind of agriculture are the main culprits of deforestation in intertropical humid regions. Seeing forest pans go up in fire naturally evokes notions of irresponsible destruction of life and irreversible damage to the environment: soil erosion, landslides, sanding up of lowland rice paddies, the greenhouse effect, loss of biodiversity, etc. Yet numerous studies have shown that these perceptions are simplistic and misleading. It is worth remembering that in fact there are many forms of slash-and-burn agriculture, especially in Southeast Asia, and they do not all have the same effect on the reproduction of ecosystems. (Gourou 1984; Condominas 1980). As long as the cultivation periods are neither too long nor too frequent, with sufficient regrowth periods that regularly reconstitute the dense forests, the damage caused by this type of agriculture on the productive potentialities of the ecological environment is minimal (Ramakrishnan 1992; Atal, Bennagen et al. 1983; Kunstadter et al. 1978; Servant et al. 2000; Rossi 2000, etc.). Long fallow periods indeed make it possible to keep the proliferation of weeds in check, maintain the humus content and mineral fertility of soil and restitute a favorable soil structure for cultivation.

  • 1 Source: United Nations Developement Programme: National Human Development Report. Advancing Rural D (...)
  • 2 Due to logging and the expansion of cultivated areas, the rhythm of deforestation is around 70,000 (...)

2A mountainous country whose population density is less than 24 inhabitants per square kilometer, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) still enjoys a vast forest cover. While clearly in decline, forests and tree cover account for between 41% and 47%—i.e., more than 100,000 sq. km—of the national territory, depending on the source.1 Deforestation seems to have been especially intense in the few large alluvial and densely populated plains bordering the Mekong and its tributaries.2 The mountainous regions that represent more than three-quarters of the country’s surface area but are home to no more than one-third of its population, appear to be far less affected by this phenomenon. It is nonetheless in these regions that one can usually observe diverse types of slash-and-burn agriculture. While practiced in rotation with relatively long fallow, these types of agriculture are denounced by many bilateral cooperation agencies and numerous international donors. Using legislative and regulatory measures, the Laotian government hoped to eradicate slash-and-burn practices by 2000. Such measures have been met with resistance from many ethnic groups, however, and the date has been postponed to 2010 (Lao PDR 2001).

3The government’s land tenure policy aims play a key role in the pursuit of this objective. By distributing plots of land to farming families in areas with gentle slope and prohibiting that they be left fallow for more than three consecutive years, government authorities hoped to encourage the development of new cropping systems, both intensive and “sedentary.” Theoretically, the land tenure security farmers now enjoyed would incite them to make medium and long term investments in their new lands. Forests located on steep slopes would thus be protected from slash-and-burn and new cultivation. In addition to these explicit objectives, the government also hoped to collect a land tax on each plot it allocated. The government undoubtedly also intended to control more carefully the migration of certain mountainous tribes by allocating them land located within perfectly circumscribed parameters, preferably close to main roadways. The fight against slash-and-burn probably merged with the “political objectives of national integration of minorities.” (Aubertin 2003).

  • 3 Botène, Kenthao, Paklay and Thong Mixay districts.
  • 4 This article draws extensively on the results of a diagnostic-analysis conducted in this region in (...)

4This land allocation policy was first tested in the provinces of Louang Phrabang and Xayabury with the support of several multilateral and bilateral development agencies (Asian Development Bank, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Swedish International Development Agency), after which it was rolled out to the rest of the country in 1994 (Ducourtieux et al. 2004). But over time, it appears that the effects of this policy have not always reached expectations. At least this is what has been observed in the four southernmost districts of Xayabury province,3 where agricultural transformations have been followed and studied since 1995.4

A Hilly Region Unconducive to Rainfed Rice Production

5This region—it is true—has characteristics that are quite different from the rest of the country. Located on the right bank of the Mekong and claimed by Thailand during World War II, Xayabury province was only reintegrated into the Kingdom of Laos in November 1946. The four districts in the south of the province constitute a frontier zone where Thai currency, the baht, is still the main currency of exchange. Indeed, no natural barrier seems to be able to stop exchanges between the two countries in this southern region; the Nam Heuang River can be crossed on foot or by canoe yearlong.

Fig. 1: Map of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

Fig. 1: Map of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

6The zone’s contours are the result of multiple folds and parallel faults going from north to south. Three main geomorphological types can be observed:

  • To the west, on the detrital formations from the Mesozoic period (sandstone and clay), a series of more or less undulated valleys and plains stretch, bordered to the west by steep mountains that bluntly contrast with the gentle slope of the eastern versant. The soil that has developed on the sandstone is very permeable and thus has undergone significant percolation and has only a very weak cationic exchange capacity.

  • The central part of the zone lies upon intrusive rocks (gabbro, dolerite and andesite) from the Permian period where clayey soils of variable depth have formed, much richer in cationic exchange capacity. Nonetheless, particularly sandy and acidic soil has developed on granite undulations and can be observed in the southernmost area.

  • A complex entanglement of small shaley massifs, separated by narrow, V-shaped valleys predominate in the eastern part of the zone bordering the Mekong.

Fig. 2: Geomorphological Types

Fig. 2: Geomorphological Types
  • 5 see Crozat, Judais, Renou (1996).

7Added to this is the Quaternary alluvium deposited on the edge of the river and in the valley bottoms, between the more or less steep slopes of the neighboring chains. On the piedmont, the colluvial soil is generally very deep and humus-rich, with a high concentration of mineral elements.5

8Two-thirds of the province are covered with small hills and medium-sized mountains. The valleys bottoms are often undulated, with little surface area favorable to rainfed rice production. Only the alluvial plains of Kenthao, Souvannaphoum and Thong Mixay have loamy soil, turned easily into mud and thus exploited as rice paddies. Paddies established on sandstone substrate in the valleys located further west (Botène district), on the other hand, have very permeable soil; maintaining a perched water table in these paddies is particularly difficult. The areas characterized by shaley and intrusive rocks have deep colluvial and clayey soil with a high cation exchange capacity, but the terrain’s contour is very steep and hummocky. So much that the few rice paddies that grow there are scattered like the beads of a long “rosary” on the few and particularly narrow thalweg bottoms.

From Flooded Rice Production to Slash-and-Burn

9Today, the Xayabury region is home almost exclusively to ethnic Laotians of the Taï-Kadaï group. Originally from Yunnan, the first Laotian populations appear to have immigrated to Laos in consecutive waves, starting some time during the 11th century. They would have come down along the Mekong and settled nearby the river’s edge, probably already with all the equipment necessary to set up paddies: buffaloes, draft animals, small ploughs, harrows, etc. Their descendants would have gradually branched out along the valleys where the river’s tributaries flowed, in order to practice various types of rainfed rice production (Stuart-Fox 1998). It is difficult to know the exact date when the first populations arrived in the region that is now southern Xayabury. It is also unknown whether these new arrivals had to drive out Mon-Khmer people. One can reasonably imagine the migrants arriving to a largely wooded region, with a few dense evergreen forests in the areas with clayey and deep soil, and less dense deciduous forests of the Dipterocarpacae family in the zones of sandstone substrate. The migrants also undoubtedly first settled the plains and alluvial valleys where it was easier to set up rice paddies.

  • 6 Tectona grandis.
  • 7 Stick-lac is a lacquer secreted by a piercing-sucking insect, Coccus lacca, a parasite of various w (...)
  • 8 Bamboo shoots, mushrooms, fruit, vegetables, wild tubers, crabs, caterpillers, scarab larvae, crick (...)

10When passing through the region in June 1861, the naturalist Henri Mouhot described Paklay as a “charming little village” of “elegant and spacious houses” (Mouhot 1868). The harmony of these constructions was probably the result of logging in the neighboring forest where teak wood6 was abundant. By the end of the 19th century, the Kenthao district was described as mainly forested. But it was in fact a transit area where Siamese currency (ticals) and silver coins from English Burma were already circulating (Aymonnier 1885). Traders of Chinese origin came from Bangkok regularly to sell cotton goods, matches and dishes. The villagers offered stick-lac in exchange, harvested from the neighboring forests.7 A well of salt water was exploited somewhere in the immediate proximity of Botène, and the salt collected after evaporation was mainly exported to other Siamese provinces. Caravan trade was only within reach of a few elite who traveled on elephant back. Peasants essentially made their living from flooded rice production and net fishing, as well as small orchard-gardens, poultry rearing, cotton and silk weaving, sewing, basketry, manufacturing fishing tools, hunting and gathering of wild forest species.8 Money was only used in commercial transactions with outsiders; peasants produced first for their own consumption, and exchanges with other villagers usually involved bartering.

11As population grew, farmers made efforts to expand their cultivated areas by setting up new paddies in the bottoms of increasingly narrow and distant thalwegs. The village usually would stretch out along the waterway. In order to avoid traveling long distances between their homes and rice paddies, groups of young households would regularly leave their villages to set up new ones in regions yet uninhabited. But in the oldest villages, easily floodable areas became relatively limited. Due to the increasing number of inhabitants, it became necessary to cultivate rainfed rice on the uplands, at the expense of forest areas. The village limits thus expanded towards the piedmont and mountainous slopes of higher altitude. By 1930, peasant families could no longer expand their rice paddies and almost all turned to slash-and-burn agriculture in rotation with relatively long periods of forest regrowth (Laffort 1998). The farmers began to fell the densest forests, mostly located on lands where soils were deepest. The less dense forests of the Dipterocarpacae family, situated on the hills and sandstone mountains where the soil was usually skeletal or crusty, were largely conserved, namely due to the significant herbaceous stratum in their underbush.

12As soon as the first rains arrived following the slash-and-burning of the woody perennials, rainfed rice was planted in association with various vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, etc.), roots or tubers (taro, sweet potato, etc.) and vine crops (cucumber, pumpkin, etc.). Weeding was the main preoccupation of farmers and was the reason why workers could only cultivate a limited surface area (around 0.5 hectare per worker per year). Weeding was even more of a constraint when the same plot was cultivated two years in a row. After only one or two years of crops, plots that had been previously cleared of trees, bushes and their roots, turned back into wild land for periods of 15 to 20 years, the time necessary for reconstituting the dense tree biomass under whose shade wild grass could not proliferate or reproduce. Falling leaves also helped reconstitute the organic material on the soil surface. It was then possible to once again plant the land.

13In principality of Thailand, the King of Siam was theoretically considered the distinguished owner of all the lands of the kingdom, lands that could be redistributed at his will, “thus creating links of dependence in measure with his own authority, translated into action by payment of a tribute tax” (Surhyadhay 1970). In reality, however, this power was only wielded by the intermediary of a hierarchy of princes and elites who regularly showed their allegiance to the king. In the early 19th century, peasants from the southern Xayabury thus depended on three principalities of varying importance: Kenthao, Botène and Souvannaphoum. But apart from their right to collect tax and demand labor, the princes did not interfere in the land allocation and colonization.

14In practice, it was at the village level that the land appropriation process was regulated. Clearing a plot of land and being its first occupant was seen as a claim to its ownership that was perpetuated by working the land. Nonetheless, it did not constitute a definitive right, because it could automatically disappear if the land were not used during a more or less long period of time. The civil code of the Kingdom of Laos asserted, in 1927, the rights of possession of paddies that had been abandoned for three years, and fields of rain-fed crops that had been abandoned one year (Surhyadhay 1970). For the southern part of Xayabury, these clauses never seemed to have been applied. Families and inheritors of the first settlers appeared to always consider themselves the definitive owners of lands that their ancestors cleared, including in the mountainous and hilly areas where slash-and-burn agriculture was practiced (Laffort 1998, Pasquet 2002). Each family thus had 15 to 20 plots dispersed within the village limits during this period. Free loans of lands between collateral relatives was nonetheless frequent, in order to match up the available labor force with the lands susceptible to cultivation. The abundance of lands still available, due to low demographic density, and the system of land loans between families, explained why there were no landless peasants at this time. Descendants of the first settlers were nonetheless privileged, since they always retained their right to revert to cultivating lands that had been cleared by their ancestors, usually the best-situated, not far from the village, and where soil was deep and fertile.

A Variety of Livelihood Activities in the Villages

  • 9 Vigna umbellata.
  • 10 Especially papaya, mango, tamarind, coconut, jackfruit, etc.
  • 11 Eggplant, garlic, onion, mint, hot pepper, anise, lemon grass, etc.

15Although each village was connected to neighboring villages and towns via a system of pathways, rural village life in the early 20th century resembled living on an island lost in the middle of the forest. Village limits were organized in the form of more or less evenly-formed concentric circles, depending on the topography. Houses and gardens were almost always situated near running water and not far from the few lowland rice paddies, on the ridges of the river banks and the oldest alluvial terraces. The gardens located around the house usually supplied produce for the family’s consumption: corn, rice beans,9 peanuts, sugar cane to chew on, cotton, kapok, betel nut, areca nut, tubers, bananas, fruit varieties,10 etc. Other small gardens situated on the river’s edge were also sometimes planted with vegetables, aromatic plants and condiments11 during the dry season after the waters had receded. Each village was encircled by a relatively thick forest crown, thus protecting it from the eventual spread of fire caused by clearing and burning in distant areas. Even further away, far beyond the areas occasionally subjected to slash-and-burn, stood forest reserves that had practically never been cleared.

16During the dry season and the moments of respite in the crop calendar, villagers engaged in a variety of handicraft activities in their homes in order to meet their family’s needs: cotton ginning, spinning and dyeing; weaving; basketry; broom making; manufacturing of fishing tools, etc. Houses were built with the help of other villagers. Only blacksmiths and potters were considered specialized craftsmen.

17Almost all peasants also raised some poultry (chickens, ducks, etc.) and usually had a few pigs as well. Animals were usually left to roam freely about the village and would eat the rice bran available after the pounding in addition to surplus fruit and post-harvest crop residues (the haulm of legumes and tuber plants, banana leaves, etc.). Better-off farmers also maintained relatively large buffalo herds. The beasts were primarily raised as draft animals, but the wealthiest farmers with large herds also managed to export animals to other provinces. Breaked with salt, buffalo herds roamed freely among the herbaceous, bush and tree-covered wild lands when they were left uncultivated. Some herds would venture into the high-altitude forest reserves far from the village, at risk of falling victims to voracious felines still very present in the wild fauna. During the dry season, the paddies served as common pasture where herds could graze on straw. Tethered alongside cultivated plots and on the edges of fields and paths, buffaloes used as draft animals were usually raised separately from the herd and folded at night under the houses built on stilts. Droppings were collected during nocturnal folding and used to fertilize gardens and rice paddies that served as nurseries for seedlings to be transplanted.

18Raising elephants was reserved for a very small elite who could then transport heavy loads (hauling wood for construction, thatch for roofs, etc.) and trade certain goods (salt, iron bars, tools, rifles, opium, etc.) over long distances. The elephants were kept in the immediate proximity of the village only when they were being used; during the other times, they were kept on chains but could nonetheless look for their own forage in the neighboring forests.

Fig. 3: Village Territories

Fig. 3: Village Territories

Gradual Integration into International Trade

  • 12 Cajanus cajan. During the 1930s, a harvest of 12 kilograms of red gum-lac generated enough revenue (...)

19When the Kingdom of Laos became a French protectorate, the region, still very much under the influence of the Kingdom of Siam, did not experience profound changes. Nevertheless, the colonial power encouraged exploitation of teak around Paklay and established equestrian paths under a corvée labor regime. A per capita tax payable in hard currency was established in order to force peasants to sell merchandise like stick-lac, then manufactured by raising Coccus on pigeon pea plants.12 During World War II and the two years that followed it, the Thai government with the help of the Japanese, had momentarily managed to re-establish its authority over the whole region and undertook the construction of a rideable road between Kenthao and the main town of Xayabury province. The government also managed to impose the baht as the main currency of exchange.

  • 13 The Kingdom of Siam took the name Thailand in 1932 when a coup d’état overthrew the monarchy.
  • 14 Unginned coton.

20Even more important for the gradual integration of populations from southern Xayabury into international markets was the development of railways and road infrastructure in the North-East of Thailand.13 By decreasing the cost and time required to transport goods to Laos, the inauguration of the railroad from Bangkok to Nongkai (a small town located across from Vientiane on the right bank of the Mekong) in 1950 made it much easier to acquired manufactured goods. Peasants from southern Xayabury were thus incited to produce more merchandise in order to receive monetary income. As a result, it became common to produce a “surplus” of seed-cotton,14 flax, jute and roselle to sell in Thailand. Neither bulky nor perishable, these commodities were sent on bamboo rafts, via the Heuang and Mekong River, to Vientiane or the small Thai port of Chieng Khan. The construction of a vast road network in the 1960s and 1970s that made it possible to reach the Thai province of Loei helped accelerate the process. The small boarder village of Muang Mo thus became an entrepot for agricultural goods to be exported to Thailand.

21In the heart of the region, the construction of new rural roads by the army and access to Japanese capital increased logging, in order to export timber and boards to Thailand via trucks. Three sawmills were built in Muang Mo and a fourth in Paklay. The Dipterocarpaceae forests were heavily logged, the traces of which can still be seen today. Large wheeled carts pulled by oxen (which substituted portaging with a shoulder yoke) also stimulated the transportation and sale of increasingly varied agricultural goods: corn, peanuts, beans, tamarind, cotton, etc. But the development of cash crops was limited to zones close to rural roads, the Mekong and border crossings. Villagers located far inland continued to cultivate crops for their own consumption and only sold produce derived from animal husbandry, hunting and gathering.

  • 15 The cotton leafhopper (Amrasca biguttula) in particular, whose toxic saliva injected into the blade (...)

22Nonetheless, following the construction of a ginning plant in the Thai province of Loei, and as a result of the French Textile Company’s (CFDT) decisive intervention in terms of extension, credit and input supply, the border region became the most important exporter of cotton. The production of unginned cotton went from 200 tons in 1966 up to 2000 tons in 1971, with an average yield of more than one ton per hectare (Mahdavi 1995). As opposed to cereals and legumes, producing seed-cotton and exporting it to Thailand was relatively easy. The harvest came well after that of the paddies, between December and January, in the middle of the dry season when roads could once again be used by trucks. In addition, the tillage and the weeding of cotton plants took place between July and August, when the sowing of rainfed rice with a digging stick had already been completed. (Castella et al. 1993). It would have been very different for other regions of Laos, where flooded rice production predominated and the weeding period of cotton plants would have coincided with the transplanting of rice plants. To meet the demands of Thai manufacturers, the CFDT introduced a new variety of cotton from Chad to the region. The fibers were simi-long and were better suited to mechanized spinning mills than the short-fiber variety used until then by Laotian peasants. But this so-called “improved” variety with glabrous leaves proved to be far less tolerant of the piercing-sucking insects so present in the local insect fauna15 than the traditional varieties whose bristly hairs offered relatively good protection. The result was increased use of imported insecticides.

  • 16 The government never did manage, however, to set up “production cooperatives” in the southern part (...)

23The overthrow of the monarchy in 1975 and resulting blockade imposed by the Thai government on the young People’s Democratic Republic ended abruptly the trans-border trade. The new government’s desire to organize the commercialization of manufactured inputs and agricultural produce through a centralized network of village “purchasing and training cooperatives” and regional and district level companies quickly dissuaded peasant from producing for the market (Evans 1995). It became especially difficult to get hold of inputs and the equipment necessary to produce and transport agricultural goods: selected seeds, insecticides, carts, etc. The levying of a progressive tax indexed on family production of rice and the government’s attempts to organize labor exchange groups within villages16 did nothing to incite peasants to produce marketable surpluses beyond the strict minimum for their family. Many villages turned inwards and only developed activities that would ensure the self-sufficiency of their families. Practically the only items marketed in the region were the few animals and vegetal produce smuggled into Thailand.

  • 17 Ever since the Republic was founded, Lao PDR has been governed under a single party regime in which (...)

24The Party and government in power were nonetheless forced to backtrack and renounce their initial intentions to rethink the entire national economy based on principles of centralized planning. Less than a decade after the inauguration of the Republic, the authorities17 set up the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) in which market forces ultimately would play a increasingly important role. Made official in 1986, the new policy was materialized in the gradual liberalization of domestic commerce, and not long after, international trade (Bourdet 2000, Dessalien 1991).

  • 18 The main commercial bank, Banque Lan Xang did not open branches in Kenthao and Paklay districts unt (...)
  • 19 Farmers preferred to cultivate cotton varities that were tolerant to predatory insects since they c (...)
  • 20 Hibiscus sabdariffa.
  • 21 Broussonetia papyrifera.
  • 22 Coix lacryma-jobi: a grass whose seeds are exported to Thailand to make sweets.

25Manufacturing and commercialization activities destined for Thai markets were reactivated little by little, mainly due to the intervention of Thai traders. In absence of an official and efficient system of enterprise and agriculture credit,18 the traders were often the first source of capital for private Laotian traders who in turn needed to distribute funds to the middlemen who were in charge of supplying villagers with inputs and purchasing a part of their yields after the harvest. Selling inputs on credit became the most privileged way for traders to create their network of agricultural goods suppliers. Peasants, in return, would commit to selling all or a part of their marketable produce to their creditors (Laffort 1997). Traders were then able to recover the principal and earn interest by directly discounting the amount due from the produce delivered to them. This is how the production and sale of seed cotton gradually reappeared in the Kenthao district, in view of exportation to Thai ginning and spinning mills.19 In a relatively similar fashion, in the 1990s, the Thong Mixaï district became a production and exportation zone of roselle (sorrel) flower calyxes20 used to manufacture beverages in Thailand (Pasquet 2002). In the Paklay district, the cultivation of paper mulberry21 and the protection of this wild plant in the bushy wild lands made it possible to export its bark to manufacture deluxe paper in Thailand, Japan and Korea. It is important to note than in each of these three cases, peasants sold relatively manageable produce whose harvest and marketing came during the dry season when roads were passable and produce destined for auto-consumption was already stored. The production of the former did not compete with the latter. This was not always the case with corn, rice beans, peanuts and Job’s tears.22 For these crops, production destined for sale was limited for a long time due to transportation difficulties and a lack of “free time” to cultivate them during the rainy season when farmers had to dedicate most of their efforts to growing rice, used for family consumption. The region’s peasants only dedicated their lands more extensively to cash crops when it was clear that such crops would help increase income without being detrimental to activities (rice production, fishing and hunting) that ensured the family’s self-sufficiency.

Land Reform, the Prohibition of Slash-and-Burn, and Tractor Ploughing

  • 23 Demographic density was still less than 19 inhabitants/sq. km, on average, in the Xayabury province (...)

26Rapid population growth of around 2.9% per year23 (UNDP 1996) and an increase in the amount of surface areas cultivated per worker (planted with new cash crops in the zones most open to trade) have little by little shortened the fallow periods of lands located within village territories. The effect has been increased weediness in the immediate surroundings of the forest crown encircling villages, where farmers were increasingly incited to plant. Areas where weeds were thickest and where sometimes only residual trees remained became pasture lands for tethered cattle, as slash-and-burn practices had already stretched to the forest zones located at the periphery of the village territories.

27The government adopted a village-level land allocation program to stop, in principle, slash-and-burn agriculture and bring in check this constant process of deforestation and “savannization” of ecosystems. Designed to be applied to the entire country, along with a forest zoning operation, the land allocation program was first tested in the early 1990s in Louang Phrabang and Xayabury provinces. What very quickly resulted was official zoning of village territories, with a strict categorization of areas reserved for defined purposes: reserve forest, protected forest, production forest, rehabilitation forest, forests reserved for the eventual expansion of cultivable areas, perennial plantations, permanent rice paddies, rainfed crops in rotation with short fallow, pastures, etc. The criteria used by provincial authorities to differentiate these various types of lands were mainly steepness of slope and the way the land had been previously exploited. Thus lowlands were to be turned into flooded rice paddies, the steepest zones and those located farthest from the villages were to be reserved for forest. Only the flat and slightly sloping uplands that had been cultivated some time in the previous four years could be planted again with rainfed crops. Peasant families were thus attributed definitive and inheritable usage rights of a limited number of plots whose purpose was precisely defined: orchards, flooded rice production, annual rainfed crops, tree plantations, etc. Distribution of upland surface areas was intentionally limited to make it impossible to practice rainfed slash-and-burn cultivation in rotation with long forest fallow. Peasants found themselves obliged to plant their plots reserved for rainfed crops with much greater frequency, leading to such a reduction of fallow that it was barely possible to reconstitute bush vegetation, let alone tree cover. The result was, of course, accelerated vegetal invasion of the cultivated fields and an increasing need to protect crops from weed competition.

28The weed proliferation problem in cultivated plots could only be partially solved by using disk ploughs pulled by powerful tractors. Mechanized ploughing made it possible to turn over the superficial layer of the soil and bury the weeds before sowing. Burying the weeds early on helped reduce considerably the amount of work necessary to hand-weed plots during the growth and development of crops. The main difficulty having thus been removed, peasant families with access to mechanized ploughing could expand considerably the surface area cultivated per worker. So much, in fact, that it became possible to cultivate every year nearly all of the surfaces that they had been allocated. Most families took advantage of this opportunity to increase the share of cash crops in their cropping systems, especially cotton, at no risk to their food self-sufficiency. The use of tractors and disk ploughs to turn the soil and bury weed cover also made it possible to cultivate once again the valley zones that had been abandoned to animal rearing due to their excessive weediness. These valley zones were almost entirely deforested and uprooted in order to make it easier for tractors and other implements to traverse them and work the soil. Just barely studded with a few trees and bushes, the valleys became vast open fields, with plots of arable lands connected to one another without any type of fencing.

29In the few plains and flat-bottomed valleys located in the western part of the region characterized by sandstone substrate (Botène and Thong Mixay districts), farmers either bought or rented small two-handled rotary tillers to plough lowland rice paddies and turn them into mud. For the most part, the buffaloes that had been used to work the paddies in the past were sold in order to acquire new implements. Rotary tillers were not only used in the paddies but also to plough nearby uplands to plant a few annual cash crops: peanuts, cotton, sesame, etc. Less costly than large tractors, these implements were easily accessible to farmers of modest means. Less powerful, they were not directly used for uprooting trees and bushes. Easier to maneuver, however, rotary tillers could skirt tree stumps. Nonetheless, tree cover disappeared gradually, since the resprouts were routinely removed by cutting. As such, the relatively weak potentialities of the area (acidic and permeable soil) did not incite many families to come and settle in the western zone. And because few families settled, today the western part of Xayabury is marked by a significantly higher proportion of less dense Dipterocarpaceae forests.

30Colonized more recently, the zone characterized by shaley massifs and small V-shaped valleys located in the south east along the Mekong has evolved similarly. Two-wheeled rotary tillers were also used here to work lowland rice paddies, but since plots were small, farmers often had to clear and cultivate nearby uplands. Routine use of herbicides made it possible to plant even the steepest areas without having to plough them first.

Separation of Cropping and Animal Husbandry

  • 24 Jatropha curcas.

31Deprived of their pastures in the lowland zones, the cattle and buffalo herds were for the most part displaced to the forest and sloping areas located farthest from the villages. Due to tractor ploughing (and to the contrary of what could be observed later on in many other Laotian provinces), the demarcation within the village boundaries of plots strictly reserved for agriculture and forest areas where herds would roam was more or less respected by farmers. Extensive animal husbandry practiced in the most distant range lands produced calves, while village herds were only casually monitored. The few males that were fattened were removed from the herd and tethered along the edges of paths and cultivated plots, sources of the most vegetation within the village limits. During the dry season, part of the herd was brought closer to the village to graze in fields where grain had recently been harvested. Farmers had to keep a watchful eye, though, to make sure no harm would come to the cotton plants, harvested later than grains and legumes. A few families therefore closed in their plots with hedges of Barbados nut24 in order to prevent the animals from entering. But the first enclosures only really began in the southernmost district of Kenthao, on lands near the border that had been already significantly damaged, where a handful of elite—traders and horse dealers—had cattle ranches surrounded by fences and barbed wire.

32Explicitly desired by governmental authorities, in the name of the elimination of slash-and-burn, the nearly complete separation of cultivated spaces and sylvi-pastorals areas would have been impossible if peasants had not had access to tractor ploughing that enabled them to plant the same plots every year without too much weed competition. The first tractors and implements (disk ploughs, dozers, etc.) were introduced in the region in 1989 by Thai traders. These traders generally rented out their equipment to farmers in Kenthao and Muang Mo, but a few would hire relatively poorly qualified drivers to carry out the work directly. It was not long before a few Laotian traders became rich enough to acquire their own tillage implements. Those with enough capital could till lands “on credit” and provide farmers with the necessary chemical inputs, in hopes of receiving repayment for these “loans” in the form of seed cotton. The use of tractors for ploughing was initially the most common in areas with few lowland paddies, close to larger villages in the south that were already integrated into market exchanges and where Laotian traders had acquired enough capital to buy new equipment. Heavy mechanization then spread gradually from the south to the north, in the central zone, where broad expanses of lands lay with clayey and deep colluvial soil.

33While it is true that ploughing made it possible to cultivate the same plots nearly every year without worry of weed proliferation, problems related to the reproduction of soil fertility have not been solved. Deforestation of areas that had become open fields made it impossible to ensure the resurfacing of mineral elements from the soil depth to the arable topsoil by means of tree and bush roots absorption. Carried out hastily by drivers who were paid by the job, ploughing was usually done down slope and would sometimes attain significant depth. The result was the dilution of organic matter in the surface soil by mixing it with earth from lower soil horizons. Repetitive disk ploughing aerated the soils more regularly and thus accelerated the mineralization of their humus. The problem is that the herds graze in areas relatively distant from cultivated plots, making it difficult to easily fertilize plots with manure. The rate of humus of lands cultivated annually has thus decreased gradually, ultimately causing a decrease in the soil’s structural stability and its cationic exchange capacity. Stripped of their biomass cover due to frequent ploughing and increasingly exposed to the aggressive rains of the first monsoon, these lands are already subjected to serious rill and sheet erosion, as can be observed by the increasing number of ravines on slightly sloping areas with inopportune sanding up of the few lowland paddies (Tivet et al. 2001).

  • 25 In 1997 in the district of Paklay, paper mulberry represented 5% of cultivated surfaces and 22% of (...)

34In the district of Paklay, located in the heart of one of the zones farthest from the border where mechanized agriculture has just barely begun, the separation of cropping and animal husbandry is not yet distinct. The majority of peasants still use buffaloes and attached implements to prepare paddies: one-handled ploughs, harrows to comb through weeds, bamboo to level the land, etc. Buffaloes are put into a pen in or near the village each night and thus their droppings supply organic fertilizer for the fruit trees and rice seedlings located in the paddies closest to the village. Slash-and-burn agriculture is still practiced in the uplands of this region, but the fallow periods are relatively short since farmers are prohibited from clearing the densest forests. The result is increased weediness, which poses a formidable problem to peasants, as they lack the necessary means to bury the weeds. Within this amply forested landscape in which tree and shrub regrowth dominates, the wealthiest farmers try to establish small teak plantations on uplands previously cultivated with annual crops (maize, cotton), in order to guarantee their ownership rights. Many also plant paper mulberry or, at least, encourage its development among tree and shrub regrowth. Farmers strip the bark of these mulberry plants during the dry season; the bark is then sold to village collectors and bulk traders who export it to Thailand by river or land (Pelliard 2000). The sale of paper mulberry bark accounts for between 20% and 30% of peasant revenues in this zone.25 The plant also has the advantage of being a very flexible crop, due to its multiple uses: firewood, forage for ruminants, in-kind savings that can be sold for cash immediately, etc.

New Social Differences among the Peasants

  • 26 See Chayanov (1925).

35Traditionally, social differences within villages have been slight. Only a few families, traders and first settlers, had a standard of living well above the majority. But within the peasant population itself, there were very few disparities in terms of wealth. Typically Chayanovan,26 disparities were more a result of the number of workers—or mouths to feed—within a family, than structural inequality between social classes. Of course the families that had been among the first to settle in the village often appropriated the most fertile and best situated lands within the village territories. They also often had the largest herds. But these inequalities did not necessarily translate into very different living conditions. The former land regime did not create a class of landless peasants, given that it was always possible for young households to clear new lands in forest zones. The situation thus did not lend itself to the systematic exploitation of waged agricultural workers. Only a few refugee families who had fled combat zones further north during the 1970s and settled much later in the vicinity of Paklay sold their labor from time to time for hoeing and weeding operations.

36The region’s increasing openness to market exchanges and the implementation of new land tenure measures have nonetheless created an environment rather propitious to the emergence of social differences. Indeed, not all peasant have had equal access to mechanized ploughing and as such have not obtained identical results in their cropping and animal husbandry systems. Peasant families who had inherited sizable buffalo and cattle herds were able to sell some of the animals to buy new means of production and transportation: tractors for uprooting and ploughing uplands; small hand-pushed rotary tillers for preparing and leveling paddies (and to which small carts could be attached for hauling items); small mechanized threshers, shellers and millers for corn, peanuts and rice, as well as some of the first manufactured inputs (chemical fertilizers, phytosanitary products, vaccines, and medicine for veterinary purposes). Families who were the best equipped in such goods were also the ones who were able to maintain large areas of wildland during the land allocation program. They used their equipment to regularly cultivate these lands but also would rent out their implements and services to other villagers in order to make the most of them. Hence, the first settlers to acquire a rice husker did not only use it for their own harvest; they would also mill their neighbors’ paddy. Often paid in rice bran, these farmers quickly established pig fattening and breeding operations near their homes.

37On the contrary, descendants of families who settled the region later nowadays face significant difficulties. An altogether new landless and quasi-landless class of peasants is emerging. During the land allocation program, the earliest settled families often managed to make the most of their ancestral rights, claiming the best-located and least sloping lands in valley bottoms and near the village. The others were usually allocated plots that were distant and steep; plots that it would have been possible to cultivate before slash-and-burn was prohibited. Because they must be cultivated frequently and fallow periods are consequently short, here too increased weediness has become a problem. But because of their slope, these plots are often difficult to plough with tractors and thus even more exposed to rain erosion. Since the proscription of slash-and-burn agriculture, young families from poor backgrounds are finding it difficult to clear new lands in the steepest forest areas. Families who did not inherit substantial herds usually do not manage to self-finance the purchase of large equipment for ploughing, hulling, threshing, milling or phytosanitary treatments. They are left with no choice but to hire someone to do the work or take loans from wealthier traders and peasants at interest rates of around 3-5% per month (Doligez & Chastenet 2000). Some of the poorest farmers must even work as waged workers on the farms of wealthy families in order to complement their income. A few are even constrained to break the law and clear new lands in forest areas, unless they decide to live the village for the city or migrate definitively to Thailand or less densely populated areas of Lao PDR.

New Roads and Growing Access to Chemical Inputs

  • 27 Under the supervision of provincial authorities, the Project for the rural development of the four (...)

38Provincial and governmental authorities are very much aware of the “comparative advantages” of the four southern districts of Xayabury. Alerted early on to the environmental consequences of the new cropping systems in the region, authorities have aimed to improve transportation and intensify market exchanges with the region while still trying to promote less harmful production systems. To do this, they have called upon foreign expertise and aid. National highway number 4 connecting Paklay to Kenthao was promptly rehabilitated with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in order to enable the passage of trucks year round. And the French Development Agency (AFD) has provided significant funding to a project that aims to increase the well-being of populations through “accelerated, harmonious and sustainable rural development”27 (CCL 1998). This development project, called PRODESSA, has enabled the rehabilitation of several rural roadways, the organization of training seminars regarding the use of phytosanitary products, the introduction of private animal health agents in rural communities, the construction of storage infrastructure and equipment, the storage and processing of agricultural produce, the establishment of village banks and experimentation with cropping systems on more or less permanent vegetation cover that do not rely on ploughing. It is too early to conduct an exhaustive evaluation of the effects of these interventions, but tendencies are already emerging.

39Rehabilitation of rural roads has opened access to a few of the most remote agricultural zones where clayey colluvial soil is particularly deep and fertile. The effect has been to decrease transportation costs, making it easier for peasants to sell their maize and peanut production quickly, without having to stock it under difficult conditions for several months in granaries (Dufumier 2003). Improving road access seems to already have had a positive effect on reducing farmers’ post-harvest losses. Furthermore, being able to sell bulky and perishable goods has also made it possible for peasants in villages situated even the farthest from the border to diversify their farming systems and react more quickly to price changes. They can therefore plant more maize, Job’s tears, beans and peanuts, and do not have to depend as much as before on commercializing seed-cotton and other produce harvested only during the dry season. Aware of the business possibilities created by the rehabilitation of rural roads, traders now send their trucks as soon as the harvest begins in order to purchase a maximum amount of grain and have thus created a competitive environment that has been advantageous to the peasants. Indeed, it appears that they are able to negotiate higher prices for their harvested produce.

  • 28 Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the villagers concerned.

40By offering farmers access to rural credit on relatively good terms, the first village banks set up by the project seem to be playing a similar role: benefitting farmers28 can now buy their inputs and have their lands ploughed by paying traders and workers in cash. Less dependent on suppliers for goods and services, farmers no longer have to hand over their harvests to these middlemen. Indeed, they can now put them in competition with each other in order to negotiate a better price for themselves. The village banks not only are reducing villagers’ dependency on informal credit sources, they are also offering an option to otherwise usurious interest rates. The majority of producers use loans to purchase inputs and have their lands ploughed, which has led to significant expansion of lands cultivated with rainfed cash crops: maize, red kidney beans, peanuts, Job’s tears, etc. Farmers whose plots are already cultivated to the authorized limit use their loans to develop pig rearing operations (breeding or fattening) by purchasing sires, piglets, feed and vaccines.

  • 29 Situated in the south of the country, the Boloven plateau is also very integrated into internationa (...)
  • 30 International trade indeed will probably continue to intensify with the recent inauguration of a br (...)
  • 31 One of the more recent crops that has emerged is black ginger, used to manufacture medicinal liquor (...)

41Of all the rural regions in PDR Lao, the four southern districts of the Xayabury province are probably the most integrated into the international markets.29 This is essentially the result of their location along the Thai border,30 recent rehabilitation of rural roads, the relatively few rice paddies and the presence of colluvial soil that is favorable to a wide variety of cash crops.31 Farmers are adding new commercial crops to their cropping systems every day and market an increasing amount of their produce. In ten years, the peasant in the districts of Kenthao and Botène have more than quadrupled the surface area used to cultivate commercial crops while the area for rice production has remained more or less stable (see Fig. 4). Farmers with access to tractors have been able to multiply by five, even by seven times their area cultivated each year, and thus bolstered their incomes significantly: roughly 50% comes from the commercialization of cash crops.

Fig. 4: Evolution of Surface Area Cultivated in the Four Districts of Southern Xayabury

Fig. 4: Evolution of Surface Area Cultivated in the Four Districts of Southern Xayabury

42Farmers in these two districts also increasingly use selected seeds and imported chemical inputs: mineral fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides from Thailand. Traders have become the main “field advisors” of these new inputs, without necessarily possessing thorough knowledge of how they should be used or how they work, nor of the health and ecological risks that come with their usage. PRODESSA is now offering training sessions for peasants and traders on how to use these inputs, but cannot always anticipate the arrival of new products on the market.

  • 32 These tests are being undertaken under the auspices of the National Agriculture and Forest Research (...)

43However, as we have seen, the main danger lies with irresponsible use of heavy tractors and disk ploughs for repeatedly tilling steep uplands. The considerable rain erosion observed today on upland plots is, for the most part, the result of frequent ploughing, usually done in the direction of the slope. Repetitive tillage directly exposes the soil to aggressive tropical rains, accelerates the mineralization of humus and reduces structural stability. Soil fertility will likely decrease even more given the intensity of deforestation of cultivated plots, the separation of cropping systems and animal husbandry and, consequently, the diminishing returns of organic matter to soils reserved for cultivation. In order to limit rain erosion, some farmers are currently testing no-till seeding on vegetative cover.32 It already appears possible to cultivate catch crops as cover crops after harvesting the grains and legumes. Mainly sorghum and millet as well as a few herbaceous crops such as Brachiaria ruziziensis, these crops benefit from the residual humidity of the soil. Moreover, they can be used as forage for poultry, pigs and ruminants. But because of current ranging practices, they risk being grazed prematurely when the herds return to cultivated areas at the beginning of the dry season. There is thus concern that farmers may not be able to make the most of these cover crops as long as the plots where they grow are not fenced in.

The Emergence of Forest Pioneer Agriculture

44The land allocation program tested in Xayabury aimed to eradicate slash-and-burn cultivation, considered too destructive, and promote more sedentary and sustainable forms of agriculture. In theory, it was hoped that peasant families would be incited to made medium- and long-term investments in lands to which they possessed definitive and inheritable usage rights, and practice more intensive agriculture with the certitude that they would reap the benefits in time. The forest massifs would therefore no longer be exploited for agriculture and the productive potentialities of the ecosystem would be preserved.

45The reality has nonetheless proved to be far more complex. In the absence of forest wildlands, lands regularly exposed to daylight have been overcome with weeds and fighting them off has only been possible through increasingly frequent tractor ploughing. Use of tractors has of course made it possible to expand the amount of surface area cultivated annually per worker, thus boosting the income of a great many farmers. But due to repetitive planting, low levels of organic matter contribution and increased exposure to erosive agents, the “natural fertility” of the soil has already started to diminish and hence must be reestablished with chemical fertilizers.

46Not all farmers were allocated lands of comparable size and today they do not have access to the same production means. A real estate market is emerging and the most indebted peasants are sometimes compelled to sell their plots and look for new lands in less densely populated zones. Landless peasants and young households from poorer families often have no alternative than to clear new lands in forests that are theoretically protected, despite fines that they must pay for breaking the law. In fact, paying these fines gives them the right to cultivate the cleared lands and thus often operates as a land title. So while prohibited in theory, clearing new lands in the forest massifs actually enables peasants to acquire plots and progressively expand cultivated areas within the village limits. Slash-and-burn cultivation appears to have officially disappeared, but “forest pioneer” agriculture is emerging and the problems concerning diminishing forest cover and the reproduction of soil fertility still have not been resolved.

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1 Source: United Nations Developement Programme: National Human Development Report. Advancing Rural Development. Vientiane; Lao PDR 2001.

2 Due to logging and the expansion of cultivated areas, the rhythm of deforestation is around 70,000 hectares per year, on average (Sisouphanthong & Taillard 2000).

3 Botène, Kenthao, Paklay and Thong Mixay districts.

4 This article draws extensively on the results of a diagnostic-analysis conducted in this region in 1995 by Jean-Richard Laffort (Laffort 1997). It also draws on studies carried out within the framework of the PRODESSA project (Integrated Rural Development Project of the four southernmost districts of Xayabury), managed by the Comité de coopération avec le Laos (CCL).

5 see Crozat, Judais, Renou (1996).

6 Tectona grandis.

7 Stick-lac is a lacquer secreted by a piercing-sucking insect, Coccus lacca, a parasite of various wild forest species. The insects attach themselves to young twigs, suck their sap and wrap them up in lacquer, thus the name stick-lac.

8 Bamboo shoots, mushrooms, fruit, vegetables, wild tubers, crabs, caterpillers, scarab larvae, crickets, cicadae, snails, rats, moles, snakes, monitor lizards, tree pangolins, tortoises, etc.

9 Vigna umbellata.

10 Especially papaya, mango, tamarind, coconut, jackfruit, etc.

11 Eggplant, garlic, onion, mint, hot pepper, anise, lemon grass, etc.

12 Cajanus cajan. During the 1930s, a harvest of 12 kilograms of red gum-lac generated enough revenue to requite one’s per capita tax and pay someone to fill in for one’s corvée labor duty.

13 The Kingdom of Siam took the name Thailand in 1932 when a coup d’état overthrew the monarchy.

14 Unginned coton.

15 The cotton leafhopper (Amrasca biguttula) in particular, whose toxic saliva injected into the blade of the leaf could impede the develop of the plant.

16 The government never did manage, however, to set up “production cooperatives” in the southern part of Xayabury.

17 Ever since the Republic was founded, Lao PDR has been governed under a single party regime in which the executive must follow the path laid out by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, one of the inheritors of the old Indochinese Communist Party.

18 The main commercial bank, Banque Lan Xang did not open branches in Kenthao and Paklay districts until the mid 1990s. The bank responsible for financing agricultural activities, the Agricultural Promotion Bank, only opened its first branch in 1995, in Kenthao.

19 Farmers preferred to cultivate cotton varities that were tolerant to predatory insects since they could not easily access insecticides.

20 Hibiscus sabdariffa.

21 Broussonetia papyrifera.

22 Coix lacryma-jobi: a grass whose seeds are exported to Thailand to make sweets.

23 Demographic density was still less than 19 inhabitants/sq. km, on average, in the Xayabury province in 1995. But it was probably well higher than that of Kenthao, Botène and Paklay districts, the first to be colonized by ethnic Laotian peoples.

24 Jatropha curcas.

25 In 1997 in the district of Paklay, paper mulberry represented 5% of cultivated surfaces and 22% of surface areas reserved for cash crops (Pelliard 2000).

26 See Chayanov (1925).

27 Under the supervision of provincial authorities, the Project for the rural development of the four southernmost districts of Xayabury province (PRODESSA) has benefited from technical assistance from the Comité de Coopération avec le Laos (CCL) and the French International Cooperation Center for Agricultural Research and Developement (CIRAD).

28 Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the villagers concerned.

29 Situated in the south of the country, the Boloven plateau is also very integrated into international markets, due to exportation of its coffee bean production.

30 International trade indeed will probably continue to intensify with the recent inauguration of a bridge across the Nam Heuang River.

31 One of the more recent crops that has emerged is black ginger, used to manufacture medicinal liquors.

32 These tests are being undertaken under the auspices of the National Agriculture and Forest Research Institute (NAFRI), with the support of CIRAD.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Map of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
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Titre Fig. 2: Geomorphological Types
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Titre Fig. 3: Village Territories
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Titre Fig. 4: Evolution of Surface Area Cultivated in the Four Districts of Southern Xayabury
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Jean-Richard Laffort et Marc Dufumier, « From Slash-and-burn to Disk Ploughing: The Land Policy and Tractors Behind Erosion and Forest Pioneer Farming in Southern Xayabury Province (Laos) »Moussons, 9-10 | 2006, 109-130.

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Jean-Richard Laffort et Marc Dufumier, « From Slash-and-burn to Disk Ploughing: The Land Policy and Tractors Behind Erosion and Forest Pioneer Farming in Southern Xayabury Province (Laos) »Moussons [En ligne], 9-10 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 février 2013, consulté le 25 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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