Helping Laotians adapt to rapid change

29 March 2012

Community meetings will form a large part of the research.
Community meetings will form a large part of the research.

Human geographers and international public health experts from the University of Sydney are collaborating on a project to help people in Laos adjust to large-scale environmental changes, with a research grant of $1.4 million from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

The project addresses a major problem for Laos: how to develop the country's natural resources for the public good, while ensuring that those affected are best able to adapt to and benefit from large natural resource investments. These investments include hydropower and mining projects and agricultural plantations.

"Laos is at a crossroads in its development," said Philip Hirsch, who is Professor of Human Geography at the School of Geosciences. "As a resource-rich and cash-poor country, a key challenge is how to meet the government's aspiration to achieve middle income status by 2020 in an inclusive way and without depleting the resources on which the poorest of the rural poor depend."

The research team includes Professor Philip Hirsch, Dr Yayoi Largerqvist, Natalia Scurrah and Dr Jessica McLean from the Mekong Research Group, School of Geosciences and Associate Professor Michael Dibley from the Sydney School of Public Health.

The three-year project, due to commence in May 2012, will also involve agronomists, resource economists and environmental scientists from the National University of Laos and work with a river basin organisation to address key livelihood and environment issues related to hydropower and mining development.

Professor Philip Hirsch (far left) meeting with local Laotians.
Professor Philip Hirsch (far left) meeting with local Laotians.

The research project will focus on Nam Ngum watershed, a large catchment in central Laos with a history and ongoing experience of livelihood changes associated with large-scale resource development projects.

It will employ a range of economic, social and health measures to assess well-being associated with changes in people's livelihood and to pilot options that can assist socially disadvantaged groups.

"It is crucial for the project to involve local communities, government representatives and other stakeholders in the research process," said Professor Hirsch.

"Through joint learning and planning we hope to address key livelihood concerns such as the reduction of available land for agriculture, the ongoing flooding of existing rice fields from upstream dams and the depletion of fisheries and forest resources."

Professor Hirsch added, "Without the interdisciplinary collaboration of geographers and public health specialists at the University of Sydney, this project would not have got off the ground."

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