A Lao PDR village with an ancient connection to the forest learns to preserve rather than destroy.

Baan Thahou, Champasak Province ─ Along a rutted path, three forest rangers struggle to restrain a squirming buffalo python. The snake amounts to nearly 3 meters of muscle, all of it writhing as they force it into an empty rice sack with bare hands.

This handsome creature, graced with a gold diamond pattern, was captured in the forest by a villager the day before.

"The villager said he was jobless and needed cash," said Phoutone Singsavang, a ranger guarding Xe Pian National Protected Area. "A trader would probably buy the snake to make wallets or handbags. But tomorrow, we'll return the snake to the forest where it belongs."

Villagers in this hilly region have long relied on the forest for food and herbal medicines. But, in recent times, poverty has compelled them to destroy it. Poachers seek exotic animals for sale to underground wildlife exporters. Farmers slash and burn forests to expand their tiny rice paddies. Illegal timber companies hire locals to fell trees.

Though these practices persist, they have become much rarer. The Biodiversity Conservation Corridor Initiative, a project launched by the Government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) in 2006 and supported by ADB financing, is helping preserve the forest by offering villagers less destructive ways to make a living.

Alternatives to poaching

The program has introduced cash crops, modernized farming practices, offered low-interest loans, and built ranger stations to help officials enforce wildlife protection laws.

All of these measures reduce the temptation to pillage the forests for quick cash, said Sodxay Chaleunsoun, a local project director and official with the government's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

The conservation initiative was launched at six sites throughout the Greater Mekong Subregion. In Lao PDR, the goal is to prevent up to 5,000 people living in 69 villages from further encroaching on protected areas. The investment project builds on a pilot phase, which covered 11 villages. The protected forests contain nearly 150 threatened wildlife species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and, possibly, tigers and elephants.

With each hectare of land logged or burned to expand farms, the animals' natural habitat can disappear forever. Much of the wildlife - such as the masked finfoot (an aquatic bird) and the buff-cheeked gibbon - is extremely rare. Locals have also taken on illegal work extracting rare woods for incense and bamboo for chopstick production. The area borders Cambodia and Viet Nam, further increasing the likelihood of poaching and other illegal cross-border trade.

"Life here has been very challenging. After harvesting rice, villagers would have very little income," Sodxay said. "They'd take difficult, illegal jobs to get by. My aim is to give them alternatives."

ADB has approved a $20 million grant to Lao PDR to continue this work, and $49 million in grants and loans to neighboring countries to ensure that forests are protected.

A better path

The temptation to accept illegal jobs is strongest in the dry season after rice is harvested and money is tight.

In Baan Thahou, a settlement of roughly 500 people, Sodxay has introduced mushroom cultivation to provide year-round income.

In dark, damp bamboo shacks, locals tend to mushrooms sprouting from plastic bags packed with dark soil. The mushrooms are picked, gathered into bundles, and sold in the local markets.

The mushrooms also ensure that villagers stay fed. In Sisouk Soutthavy's forest-encircled concrete home, the Baan Thahou resident prepares a small charcoal fire in her kitchen. With coal-stained fingers, she grabs a handful of mushrooms and drops them into a sizzling pan.

In minutes, her family enjoys lunch: a heaping pile of rice and stir-fried mushrooms splashed with fish sauce and sprinkled with red chilies.

"Since I was young, my family turned to the forest for work, mostly foraging for nuts to sell," said Sisouk, the 46-year-old mother of two teenage boys. "We had little money and everything we earned was spent."

The project has also provided start-up cash and small loans, mostly used to kick-start vegetable-selling enterprises and to purchase fertilizer. Others use borrowed cash to vaccinate cows and buffalo to ward off livestock diseases.

Any villager seeking an agricultural loan can pay back the amount during the next season at a 1% interest rate. Those needing money for medical treatment are only charged 0.5% interest. The easy loans are a safety net, preventing villagers from taking on harsh bank loans that allow lenders to seize land if debt is not repaid.

Before the initiative, desperation would drive villagers into the forest to log and poach, said Khampoun Bouakham, the 63-year-old headman of Baan Thahou. In his village alone, the project has supplied families with $890 in grants and loans.

"All the slashing and burning to increase rice paddies, all the logging, that's stopped here," said Khampoun, a rice farmer who has used loans to buy equipment for his rice farms. Improvements have helped the average family in Baan Thahou bring in about $240 per month.

"In the past, we made nothing really. Only what we could get from the land to eat and the timber companies, who would hire us for a while and then just leave," he said. "We'll always rely on our forests for fruit and medicinal herbs. But we never want to wait around for loggers ever again."