It had been a long day’s hike, some of it quite steep. We rested in the evening on a tree-top platform outside the thatched hut, watching the stars, listening for owls in the dense forest all around us, passing around an old soda bottle filled with local rice liquor. Our young guide, Mr. Tua, picked up a simple bamboo flute that was lying among the cross pieces of branches that made up the platform. The flute wheezed and blurted out a few sorry notes. I tried as well. The flute was in a style I had not seen before, not like Chinese flutes, held horizontally, but rather made like a recorder, with a whistle-style sound hole cleverly carved and topped with an adjustable bamboo ring. But the bamboo was old, and I could not get the adjustment right.
Old Khong, our local Khmu guide, took the flute from my hand. He tried to play, but could also hardly get out a note. He quickly made an adjustment and the whistle sprang to life. Then he pulled out his large knife. He measured three finger widths below the last hole on the flute, and cut the end off at exactly that point. He adjusted the mouthpiece and fipple and tried again – a pure high tone rang out. He brought out his knife again and carefully carved two new holes. In no time, a melody soared out of the flute, the notes perfectly in pitch.
Like Old Khong, Mr. Tua had grown up in a Khmu Village, but unlike the older porter, Tua had then gone out to get an education. He had received training in college to be a tourist guide, and he spoke good English. I had a pair of degrees to my name, and I knew a bit about wind instruments. I had studied clarinet for years and collected flutes and reed instruments from all over the world. But I did not know how to make a basic flute. The old porter had learned to do this long ago, just as he could do so many other things. And he did it all so effortlessly – creating water carriers by lashing two stout bamboo tubes together, starting a fire from bamboo shavings, unsheathing the tender rattan shoot from their outer skin, covered in ferocious sharp spines.
The Khmu people are the indigenous people of northern Lao PDR. It is said that they are descended from the oldest settlers in the region, having migrated north into Lao several centuries ago. They were later made subservient under the vigorous Lao and Dai migrants from the north, but they are still the most numerous minority group in the north of the country, with about a half million people. Khmu is not recognized as one of China’s official minorities, but they are counted as one of the 160 minorities recognized by the government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The country, known as Laos among foreigners, but better called Lao PDR as the local people prefer, has been slower to develop than its giant northern neighbour. Paul Buzzard and I were visiting for a 2nd time to plan a research project on the impact of eco-tourism on the wildlife in the forests of Luang Namtha Province, the country’s northernmost province. Our little party of 4 had been trekking for two days, and we were deep in the forest now. In fact we were almost in China, just across from China’s Xishuangbanna, which we could see from the ridge-top trail this afternoon, a trail the locals called the Elephant Trail, and it is occasionally still used by the international herd of wild elephants that migrates back and forth across the China and Lao border.
We did not expect to see any elephants this time of year; they usually appeared in the summer rainy season. Besides, our friend Mrs. Noy, had just returned from a business trip to Xishuangbanna, had found out that China was spending a fortune providing the elephants with tons of salt, an elephant treat, to keep them on the Chinese side. Noy and her husband Mr. Chittapong run the Namtha Riverside Guesthouse, an idyllic retreat made of wood and bamboo that sits comfortably on a quiet stretch of the Namtha River.
While there were no elephants, there were plenty of other animals in the forest. Mr. Tua, despite his years in classrooms, proved to be an excellent spotter. Just like the other forest guides and local people we had met, he was also an encyclopedia of jungle lore – how to get water from the joints of the green bamboo, which plants were useful as medicines or food, which plants to avoid.
As we sat on the platform in the dark, letting the rice wine take effect and drain away the aches and pains of carrying heavy packs all day, Mr. Tua told us that his father is a shaman, and Old Khong is a part-time shaman. The Khmu believe that there are hundreds of kinds of spirits in the forest, so shaman are considered very important. The Khmu are reputed to be very skillful at magic. Mr. Tua said his father knows how to treat diseases by appeasing the spirits, and even knows how to cast lethal spells, although he avoids using those powers. I asked him if he intended to study from his father; he answered that he did not want to learn. Old Khong also spoke up and said his children were not interested in learning. It seems that, within another generation, another shamanic tradition may be lost forever.
We had seen a sign on the trailside before saying “National Biodiversity Area: Not allowed to remove plant or animal life.” I joked that it was OK to eat in, but no take-out. In fact, we had eaten quite a bit of the local biodiversity from the protected area on our treks; bamboo shoots, rattan shoots, wild banana flowers, fish from the river. We had also met local people collecting in the forest, whether for personal use or for market. The morning market in town was always a treasure trove of rare and unusual wildlife, most of which must have come from the protected area.
In Lao PDR, the forest is still used by minority people to provide building materials, fuel, food, medicines and even poisons. In China, as in many part of the world, the traditional knowledge of how to use the forest is dying out, partly because young people are not interested, and partly because the older generation is no longer allowed to collect in the natural forests, which are now mostly in strictly protected nature reserves. Protection is a necessity, since there is so little natural forest remaining outside of the nature reserves.
Our trekking ended the next day with a long walk down the mountain through dense forest dominated by Lithocarpus oaks. As we approach the Namtha in its valley, the forest becomes progressively more degraded, then gives way to plantations of rubber as we near a resettled Akha minority village. It seem that the hillsides of Luang Namtha are everywhere being covered with plantations of rubber and bananas, partly encouraged by a Sino-Lao project to replace opium poppies with more acceptable cash crops.
The ancient practice of swidden agriculture, letting fields lie fallow for a decade or more before returning to clear them, is being discouraged in favor of permanent plantations. It may not be long before the pressures on the remaining natural forests, mostly now inside the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Area, is too much to allow traditional collecting to go on.
Ultimately, both traditional knowledge and biodiversity are threatened by the same force, the over-whelming, un-opposable rush of modern development. It is not hard to understand why young people are desperate to catch up with the outside world, and no longer have the time or interest to learn traditional knowledge from their parents.
In Luang Namtha “jungle trekking” provides an income to local tour guides and porters, and brings more tourists, those interested in birds, butterflies and trees. Tourists in turn support the service industry of locally owned guesthouses, restaurants and coffee shops that has sprung up in Luang Namtha to cater to the foreign visitors. If the visitors keep asking to see rainforests and wildlife and local minority traditions, it may just create enough of an incentive to encourage Old Khong and Mr. Tua, and others like them, to keep the old traditions alive and protect the forests and their wildlife.