When the Mountains No Longer Mean Home. Conclusion

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Throughout the world, immense social, political, and cultural shifts have accompanied the arrival of modernity over the past two centuries. In what is described as a compression of time and space that defines our contemporary era, globalization has brought many changes to the Akha in Laos. Regardless of whether local villagers choose to relocate closer to roads and markets, agree to state pressures that say they would be better removed from “threatened” forests, or decide they will stay in the higher slopes come what may, social change is rapidly altering daily life.

     How Lao Akha identity is reproduced in the face of changing marriage patterns, new individualized work relations with lowland groups, and commercialization of traditional items and customs (much of the old silver used in adornment is being sold to outsiders) is a process still in play. Ethnicity is not readily dissolved, but its attributes change. The wealthier Akha in China are the role models most eagerly emulated. Already on the Lao side, active pursuit of material wealth is evident in new clothes, televisions, and a flood of other Chinese products in most villages. To gain access to this world of commodity culture, the Akha are bargaining with their future livelihoods, contracting local land for rubber planting to Chinese investors for up to fifty years. These changes have an impact on both the social and the individual bodies of the Akha. Changing drug patterns to accommodate new labor expectations, and strategic use of intimate relations are just two examples that show social change is never purely about rational decision making but inevitably introduces the more complex embodied realms of emotions and feelings.

     Modernity has arrived with a rush in the Lao mountains, in a combination of opportunities (wage labor and agricultural expansion) and pressure (prohibitions on opium cultivation and forest use). One way or another, most Akha wholeheartedly embrace these new lives, most obviously indicated by material trappings such as motorcycles and televisions, but also underpinned by broadened options such as education and better health. But modernity is a fraught project; it cannot be presumed or adopted like a new suit of clothes. Akha make their choices and use their own cultural resources to seek the best negotiating position in this new landscape. No doubt some individuals and families will end up well off, but others will learn that they are part of an economic accumulation system that by no means benefits all. Cultural resilience is required to weather the sense of marginalization that, for some groups, inevitably accompanies roughshod modernization. As in neighboring countries, Akha in Laos are confronting the difficult situation of deciding what about being Akha is dispensable, and what is amenable, to their new lives as modern global citizens.

 

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