Week 3: Green Earth Centre and Sustainability

DSC_0739 IMG_9273 IMG_9289 IMG_9297 IMG_9309 IMG_9302

This week we spent Monday and Tuesday at the Green Earth Centre, VFI’s working farm and sustainability center in the South. GEC is located on the Bolaven Plateau in the Salavan Province, the poorest province in Laos and second most bombed province in the Secret War. After spending most of my first two weeks writing a grant for the IUCN and designing a plan to create an Eco-market that would complement the centre’s new agritourism business that Abby is designing, I was excited to actually see the site.

GEC has a wide array of crops, animals, etc. The center produces products sold to the surrounding communities (and their mak mao products are available throughout the country!) and strives to educate surrounding areas in sustainability practices / encourage and enable sustainable livelihoods, specifically through the collection and processing of non-timber forest products.

GEC, and VFI at large, has a mission focused on the nuances of sustainability. But is this sustainability, in a more practical day-to-day sense, visible in Lao culture? Honestly, not really. Looking beyond the agricultural practices VFI & GEC teach and encourage; the environmental measures that I, as an American, take for granted are not present here. A significant portion of the population, including my neighbors, dispose of trash by burning it. There is no recycling system. The society is extremely plastic heavy. Not only are daily interactions (food at restaurants/street food, stores, etc.) dependent on plastic, there’s no discourse on the harm of plastic. When my coworkers and I say “baw” to the plastic bag holding the plastic box of street food, the plastic bag that carries coffee, the four plastic spoons in four plastic bags that are apparently designated for my four pack of strawberry yogurt, the straw that comes with every drink, the single use chopsticks in their personal plastic bag; we’re given a weird look.

The culture of sustainability and environmental awareness, at least in my observations in Vientiane, seems to be more of a counter culture. Albeit a very present one, but one that caters towards falangs (foreigners) and university-aged students. There is a significant café culture here, once again aimed at the aforementioned population, most of which is very active in promoting fair trade and sustainability. Laos’ version of Starbucks, Joma, gets all their ingredients locally and has signs up for why you should “skip the straw.” The slogan of the coffee shop on my street, Comma Coffee, is “Coffee, Books, and Social Justice.” These cafes are complemented by more fair trade shops than I have ever seen in DC. My personal favorite is HerWorks, a store which highlights and sells the work products of women in ethnic minorities. It connects lower income women to higher value markets and gives the women the ability to express their culture while raising awareness about it (something important in a country with so many ethnicities).

When I’m immersed in these bubbles, I have become used to being served drinks with bamboo straws and seeing cloth towels in the bathroom. But bubbles are exactly what they are. Their reach is limited to specific populations: notice how each of their names and slogans are in English? HerWorks’ information on ethnic minorities in Laos and the menu above the counter of the Joma near my apartment are both only in English, not Lao. These cafes and fair trade shops are juxtaposed on top of a society where plastic lines the streets, partially because of the ubiquity of plastic and partially because of the lack of disposal system.

How do you change and expand this culture? My friend Christina’s response is crocheting with cut up plastic bags, which she lovingly calls her “plarn.” She has collected thousands of plastic bags, but even her collection has been centered around plastic drives hosted at local international schools.