When the Mountains No Longer Mean Home

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In the past, the mountains of Muang Sing (a small district in northern Laos bordering China and Burma) were remote and undeveloped: they lacked electricity, roads, schools, and services. That is not to say the hills were unpopulated. Close to one hundred Akha villages were to be found in this area, built into hillsides at high elevation (in part, to protect from malarial mosquitoes) in clusters of around thirty to fifty households. Several years ago one could still venture a few hours’ walk from small towns in the valleys and come across Akha men, women, and children tending to broad tracts of poppies in fields cut from hillside forests. Both the forests and opium were central to everyday Akha life. The Akha and other minority ethnic groups had been cultivating poppies for more than a hundred years after opium was introduced to the mountainous Upper Mekong region as part of complex colonial brinksmanship in the nineteenth century, and subsequently was encouraged by governments and local warlords as a source of profit. In the new millennium, Muang Sing was briefly famous with Western tourists as travel books referred to it as the opium capital of the Golden Triangle. Drugs have not been the only attraction to these remote hills; traders from lowland Laos and nearby China still regularly traverse the highlands, seeking forest products for medicine and perfume as well as more obscure items such as women’s hair to be used in China’s booming wig industry.

Whereas Akha largely used opium to exchange for lowland rice, they also earned small amounts of cash from these other forms of petty trade. Commodity culture remained scarce, however, for there were no shops and nothing to buy for many villagers; access to markets was, for many, at best a one or two day walk. Instead, daily routines were characterized by subsistence; local Akha families and communities gained everyday sustenance from the forest and small plots of land they sequentially cleared to plant rice (and poppies).  A few short years later, life here has changed dramatically. By 2008, remote is no longer a relevant description as new roads crisscross the upper Mekong, bringing increased mobility and many people from different ethnicities and nationalities into regular contact with each other. Opium is barely grown in Laos anymore following strict government (and UN) mandates. The majority of local Akha no longer live in the mountains, having moved down into the valleys to engage in new livelihoods. Men do not make money from forest products to anywhere near the extent of the past. Women seldom sell their hair, instead selling old silver or newly made ethnic items to tourists, and a few occasionally gain money through more intimate contact with outside men, mainly Chinese visitors. More generally, many Akha now end up selling their labor to other ethnic groups in lowland fields, where they help to plant and harvest rice, sugar, and other market produce that mostly ends up across the nearby border in China. In short, as subsistence fades as an adaptive strategy, modernization is bringing about a radically changed engagement with the world. In turn, subjective experience of what it means to be Akha, of what it means to pursue livelihood security, of what it means to reproduce both families and a social order, all take on new dimensions. Akha villagers actively seek certain options, such as economic accumulation. Other changes are less appealing: social hierarchy, exploitation, and ill health also accompany the difficult road to modernity in northwest Laos.




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