Having a field and a forest of one's own is becoming a fading reality for some ethnic women. Ethnic livelihoods and cultures are subject to innumerable pressures due to the growing focus on market oriented agriculture and pressures to end shifting cultivation. As a result, women are losing out on their ability to meet daily subsistence needs, and families are experiencing increased poverty and food insecurity. Women are experiencing the negative effects on their rights of access to land, forest and water resources, as these rights are codified and formalized. The formal recording of rights often results in neglecting to consider women's customary rights to access and control of resources.
Patterns of access to land, forest and water resources are changing for women and men in ethnic communities in three provinces of Lao PDR (Vientiane, Xieng Khouang and Xaysamboun Special Zone). These provinces are covered under the ADB-assisted Nam Ngum River Basin Development Project, which aims at stabilizing and improving water shed management in the Nam Ngum Basin through livelihoods improvement and improved conservation and management of natural resources.
An ADB technical assistance project examined the changing gender relations among ethnic groups in the above 3 provinces. The TA supported an ethnographic study of gender issues in traditional rights and access to land, forest and water resources in ethnic communities. The study focused on women from upland groups, including the Mon-Khmer and Hmong-Mien ethnic communities. Special focus was given to the Phong and Khmou groups (Mon-Khmer), and on White Hmong (Hmong-Mien). For comparative purposes, women from the lowlands were investigated.
The study found that female autonomy is grounded in their power over land, labor, and capital resources. It is the internally defined constructs of value and position that are of importance. New meanings of gender are acquired from outside influences, including development projects. In the case of village relocation and resettlement, women lose control of agricultural land and cease to participate in rituals for ancestors. For instance, they may also cease to preside over the agrarian rites linked to rice production. As a result, their power to preserve culture is lost. Understanding this balance is the key to understanding the root of gender inequality in ethnic communities.
Among the Khmou and Phong communities, there is a strong association between women and swidden cultivation. Among the Phong Phène at Pha Bong, villagers undertake both swidden and paddy farming during the year. The gender division of labor is clear—women work in swidden farming and men work in the paddy. The bulk of food that comes from wild forest resources is collected by women, which is associated with swidden cultivation. The exception is fishing. Women are also responsible for cultivating domestic vegetables, and raising livestock such as pigs and chickens, preparing food, pounding rice and cooking. The period of swidden cultivation lasts about 8-10 months (i.e., from February/March to November).
The study considered the impact of Land Forest Allocation scheme on women. It found that yields from swiddening have decreased by more than 60%. In fact, the ecological imbalances have increased women's workload. For instance, before one hectare of land would take about 5 days to weed and would only need to be done twice during each growing season. Now it takes close to 2 weeks and must be done at least 4 times prior to harvest. This means that women spend close to 2 months each year weeding one hectare of land compared to only 10 days in the past—a 600% increase in women's labor.
The Hmong cultural conditions are somewhat different. Hmong society is stratified by both age and gender with a distinct and strict system of patrilineal clans. Unlike the Khmou and Phong, a Hmong woman's power is derived from her reproductive role. The Hmong feel that a woman is the vessel through which the souls of the lineage come and go in the cycling and recycling of life. In all 3 Hmong villages, men and women participated equally in the various activities, including cooking at ceremonial rituals.
The social structure of the Mon-Khmer groups—Khmou and Phong—and their relationship with the ecosystem is similar to the patterns found in the rest of Southeast Asia. Female power and biological diversity stems from the rotational swidden system and accompanying religious beliefs. The Hmong religious and social structures are less related to the ecosystem and appear to be more adaptive (or flexible) to external influences and changes. Female power for the Hmong is derived from women's reproductive roles. The study highlighted the importance of considering the dynamic relationship between social structure, cultural practices and ecological environment in the design of projects.
Eco-systemic changes, particularly those that affect swiddening and other social changes, can have a profound impact on the status of women. It is the difference between having a field and a forest of one's own and dreaming of them from the past.