From Eking out livelihoods to Seeking Employment

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Life in the Lao mountains is hard; in the past, average Akha life expectancy only reached the late forties and child mortality remains tremendously high. And while moving to the lowlands might have made access to services more convenient, the shift to market economy and wage labor carries its own difficulties. The Akha can no longer rely on access to forests for subsistence needs. Rather, in the lowlands where paddy land for rice cultivation is limited, they increasingly depend on selling labor. Usually this takes place with Tai-Lue who have long resided in the valleys, or Chinese who invest in market gardens. Recently relocated Akha also work for other Akha families who moved down earlier and purchased any available land.

     All over the world, changing economic and technological structures reach deep into our subjectivities. “As our worlds change, so do we. As transnational trends, such as the latest phases of financial capitalism, remake the conditions of our lives and the parameters of our worlds, so too do they remake our most intimate inner processes: emotion, cognitive style, memory, our deepest sense of self” (Kleinman and Fitz-�Henry 2007:55). The move from subsistence livelihood to capi�talist styles of social and economic management brings new ways of relating to people and the environment. For the Akha, the shift to wage labor is about more than seeking cash to buy food: it creates a fundamentally different way of “being in the world.” Now experience is more finely wrought by interpersonal relations premised on a market engagement. Embracing modernity thus also entails competition over resources and profits in contexts where certain people and ideas are privileged over others. Nowadays the Akha are becoming acutely aware of this process of marginalization, as some of them end up in positions of social subordination.

     Relocation has altered mainstay communal livelihoods and more closely integrated the Akha into contemporary forms of modern citizenship with the moral obligations these entail to national governance and international programs for economic integration. The Akha are being swept along on this roller coaster of progress being promoted throughout the Upper Mekong. On the one hand, the sense of being actively engaged in an exciting new enterprise of market opportunity is pervasive. But others remain uneasy at the rapidity with which they are losing control of their future; control that in the past was firmly embedded in cultural structures that are now waning in their relevance. Some villages end up completely fractured. It is not uncommon to hear of long and heated debates in villages about the respective benefits of being in lowlands versus highlands; movement to lowlands has often been led by younger and more entrepreneurial cohorts, leaving behind older villagers far more ambivalent about the change. Economic reformation is relatively new for post-socialist Laos, which has only recently embraced a free market economy. It has allowed China to provide large amounts of investment, where, as in Muang Sing, its use is often negotiated through local cross-border kin networks. With more relaxed border regulations, Chinese influence has brought dreams of modernity directly into Akha communities in ways hitherto not experienced. But with it comes an implicit awareness of a growing social hierarchy despite enduring socialist edicts of equality and solidarity.

     Competition for resources within everyday life previously meant being skilled at gathering wood, skilled at hunting game, skilled at mountain rice cultivation, and skilled at reciting courting songs and ancestral traditions, but there seldom was direct rivalry within one’s own community or with one’s neighbors. In contrast, in the lowlands competition now takes new forms: currying favor with officials, finding the best connections for ongoing labor, learning to negotiate land use for water and rice, learning to find space for more highland Akha who move to the lowlands, and, most prominently these days, causing strong contestations over land to plant rubber. As a result, the Akha who have arrived more recently are dependent on others in ways that are in stark contrast to the situations existing in previous subsistence lifestyles, and a growing distinction is emerging between Akha who seek employment and those who employ them.     Obviously having even small amounts of cash means that families can purchase basic goods; a growing consumer consciousness brings its own pleasures. One can see this in the riotous evening gatherings as people crowd together to watch Chinese videos in the few houses with televisions. But on the other hand, labor is uncertain, subject to seasonal demand and carrying with it an implicit reliance on others to provide a wage. For the first time, the Akha without their own land are learning that they are dependent on systems outside their control. In the past they fought against an inclement climate and harsh environment. Now, Akha laborers must confront a sys�tem wherein they are being hired not for their own benefit but for someone else’s gain—they are becoming, in Marx’s terms, proletariats. Thus, in some instances, the younger and stronger men and women are first to be hired; or sometimes just women will be hired (by Chinese), for example, to plant watermelons, because they are supposedly more likely to work without complaint. As a result, competition emerges between groups from different villages. Those reliant on wages from labor or on hiring labor take on a quite different subjective relationship to the world. I recall sitting on a rough balcony in a recently relocated village as a group of women described how they were nowadays too demoralized to repeat the daily routine of going to a neighboring village to ask for work only to be rejected when limited demand meant that young men were the first to be recruited. The women stuck with sewing chores and said they much preferred their previous life in the mountains despite its arduous routine.

     People cope with these changes in different ways and choose specific (and increasingly individualized) strategies to make their way in the new environment. For example, we see forms of drug use that assist with labor demands; we see the choices women make to take partners who might offer a new future.

 

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