*Sustaining Communities will always strive to reduce any and all of our operating costs. We intend to find ways to ensure that the vast majority of the funds we raise directly benefit the school. To date we have received help and support from a large number of generous individuals and organizations. Staff and students from the Queenstown Resort College have helped to organize the project, our accounts and Facebook page. Our website was designed free of charge by Robert Clarkson, while staff at Ziptrek Ecotours in Queenstown helped to raise funds by selling tree saplings for NZ$10 each to guests on their zipline tours. Many others have also contributed to the project for which we our eternally grateful. Sustaining Communities has not used any of the funds raised for travel, accommodation or anything else that is not outlined in this website.
The project was initiated to illustrate how the sustainability model of the Natural Step framework could be implemented into a fundraising initiative and thus Project Laos was created. We aimed to raise funds in a manner that “Thought Globally and Acted Locally” hence selling native tree saplings in order to generate funds. This benefited the local ecology while raising capital for social benefit in the developing world. The question often arises as to how we chose Laos to be our target country. Many of us who worked on the project at Ziptrek Ecotours have travelled to South East Asia in our youth and Laos and Vang Vieng were places that everyone remembers. After having experienced the generosity and friendly nature of the Lao people despite the poverty many locals have to endure especially considering the recent atrocities committed in the region by western imperialism we decided to give back to this amazing part of the world. A further explanation of which is outlined in the article below.
*Warning: If you do not want to see disturbing images of Agent Orange victims please don’t scroll down.
The following extract outlines the backpacking experience through South East Asia that influenced the decision to choose Laos and this region to be the first site for a Sustaining Communities project. This is a culturally rich and ecologically diverse part of the world yet it has been subject to unimaginable suffering in recent years that has limited the ability of these nations to develop. Through their hospitality and friendly nature, the people of this region leave a mark on all who those travel there.
The Indo-China Loop
For many Western youths travelling has become a rite of passage. A chance to explore another culture and broaden your horizons before settling down back home. The “Indo-China loop” is a now well known backpacker route around South East Asia. Usually starting on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, backpackers make their way through Cambodia, up Vietnam, down through Laos and ending in the Thai Islands for the infamous Full Moon Parties of Koh Phangan. On the way travellers can enjoy many activities ranging from firing automatic weapons, drinking high alcohol “buckets” and trekking through the jungle on elephants to visit the tribal regions of the Golden Triangle.
The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travelling to the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam was our first encounter with the realities of war. Before coming here “Nam” for us was only the set of countless action movies against a dehumanized enemy. The Vietnam War, or the “Anti-American War” as it is known in Vietnam, was a real war, not a movie. It was a war that resulted in unimaginable suffering for the people of this region and will continue to affect people who are not even born yet for quite some time to come. We understood, and to an extent accepted, that many people die in wars all around the world from firearms and explosive munitions, but nothing prepared us for the revulsion we would feel at the end of our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. During the tour we were greeted by members of the Vietnamese defence forces, some of whom had taken part in the war. They were polite and friendly and welcomed tourists from all around the world including Europe, America, Australia and Japan. We were shown the appalling subterranean living conditions experienced by the resistance fighters. They showed us the many booby trap devices employed by the Viet Cong and the tactics they used to win this war of attrition. We were even given the chance to fire AK-47’s, M60’s and .45 calibre pistols. It was a light hearted affair given the circumstances.
However at the end of the tour we were thanked by the soldiers for allowing them to show us part of their history and struggle but they asked if we could make a small donation for the Agent Orange victims that are still being born in Vietnam today. We didn’t know what “Agent Orange” even was. They then showed us a frightening display of photographs, which included pictures of women and babies with almost incomprehensible deformities. Everyone went silent while they tried to process what they were seeing.
“Agent-Orange” is a chemical defoliant and herbicide i.e. it kills organic matter on contact. Tonnes of this chemical was sprayed on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This chemical is a dioxin that cannot be broken down by nature i.e. it is not bio-degradable. This means that it will not leave the water system and therefore also the food chain. It can only multiply as it goes up the food chain and becomes more concentrated over time.
According to Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 people being killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects.
In the areas where Agent Orange was used children have been affected and have multiple health problems, including cleft palate, mental disabilities, hernias, and extra fingers and toes. High levels of dioxin were found in the breast milk of South Vietnamese women, and in the blood of U.S. soldiers who had served in Vietnam in the 1970s resulting in babies being deformed or stillborn after prenatal dioxin exposure from Agent Orange.
The contaminated soil and sediment continues to affect the citizens of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, poisoning their food chain and causing illnesses, serious skin diseases and a variety of cancers in the lungs, larynx, and prostate.
Approximately 80 million litres was sprayed over 3,100,000 ha of forested area in Vietnam during the war, which dramatically disrupted ecological equilibrium. The persistent nature of dioxins, erosion caused by loss of protective tree cover, and loss of seeding forest stock, meant reforestation is difficult or impossible. Animal species diversity was also significantly impacted: in one study, a Harvard biologist found 24 species of birds and 5 species of mammals in a sprayed forest, while in two adjacent sections of unsprayed forest there were 145 and 170 species of birds and 30 and 55 species of mammals.
The dioxins from Agent Orange have persisted in the Vietnamese environment since the war, settling in the soil and water, entering into the food chain through the animals and fish that feed in the contaminated areas. Movement of dioxins through the food web has resulted in both biomagnification and bioconcentration. The sites of former U.S. air bases are the areas most heavily contaminated with dioxins.
The end result is horrific deformities occurring in new born babies in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia every year. Some estimate it to be between 3 and 5 million South East Asians and also a number of US Military personnel have been affected by this chemical and other herbicides.
Five-year-old girl Tran Huynh Thuong Sinh, who was born without eyes in the Binh Dinh province of Vietnam, is fed breakfast by a nurse at the “Peace Village” center at Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on Friday, May 25, 2007. Officials at the hospital suspect that the dioxin in Agent Orange blocks the receptors in a developing fetus, preventing the hormones that would normally instruct the cells to form eyes from doing so. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) AP
Why does the Vietnamese Army have to ask tourists for donations to help treat these people? Why aren’t people being brought to trial in The Hague for war crimes? Why didn’t we learn about this in school and why is this type of contamination continuing today? In places like the war-ravaged city of Fallujah in Iraq, increasing numbers of newborn babies are born with comparably worse deformities than Vietnam due to the use of Depleted Uranium ammunition rounds. These Depleted Uranium rounds will continue to be radioactive for over 4 billion years. This has resulted in the radioactive fallout of Fallujah being greater than that of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. This issue gets very little media coverage yet it is tantamount to the poisoning of the unborn future generations of this planet.
With this knowledge now firmly in our minds for the rest of our travels it astounded us how friendly the local people were to Western tourists. It also astounded us how happy the people there seemed despite living in such poverty. In Cambodia, for example, we witnessed barefoot children holding babies while begging for powdered milk. We saw people fishing and swimming in rivers that were essentially open sewers. We noticed street children inhaling bags of glue and even road signs discouraging foreign tourists from engaging in child sex tourism.
When we started to educate ourselves a little about the recent history of colonization, war and genocide in the region and it seemed incomprehensible that these beautiful countries with such friendly people had suffered so much in recent years.
Laos, PDR (Please Don’t Rush)
Laos seemed different than the other countries in South East Asia. While it was one of the poorest in the region there were far less beggars and street children. The vendors here were not aggressively trying to sell you things and visitors were greeted more like guests than customers. The pace of life was very relaxed and the Buddhist traditions seemed to be an integral part of society. When the French colonized Southeast Asia they had a saying – “the Vietnamese grow the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice grow, and the Lao listen to the rice growing.”
It was only after we left Laos that we began to realize that this country too had also suffered from the effects of colonialism and foreign aggression.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. More than Germany or Japan, more than Britain, more than Iraq or Afghanistan, more than anyone and yet they were never at war with anyone. They were, and always have been, neutral. Souvanna Phouma who was the leader of the neutralist faction and prime minister of the Kingdom of Laos several times appropriately referred to it as ‘the Forgotten War’ and although it is now often termed the ‘non-attributable war’. Despite the loss of over 350,000 Laotians during the Vietnam War, many people in the American government did not consider Laos to be a country at all. A report written in 1970 by the Rand Corporation described Laos as “hardly a country except in the legal sense” while war correspondent and historian Bernard Fall wrote that Laos was “neither a geographical nor an ethnic or social entity, but merely a political convenience”. A report written by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk even went as far as describing Laos as a “wart on the hog of Vietnam”. When the bombing stopped in 1973 the US had dropped over two million tonnes of bombs on Laos. This is the equivalent of 700 kg of explosives for every man, woman and child in the country. In the 1960s and early 1970s, more bombs rained on Laos than were dropped during the Second World War.
- this is the equivalent of a PLANE LOAD of bombs every EIGHT MINUTES around the clock for NINE YEARS.
- A poster in the airport warning of the dangers posed by UXO’s (Unexploded Ordinances).
If you travel on this backpacker route through Laos one reoccurring piece of advice from other travelers is to “go tubing”. Many backpackers wear with pride sleeveless t-shirts that show they have been tubing in Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng was an old US military runway in between the 2 main urban centres’ in Laos; Vientiane, the Capital and the ancient Buddhist City of Luang Prabang. This sleepy town served as a stop off point for travelers making their way between the two cities. Vang Vieng is beautiful. Situated on the Nam Song River it is dwarfed by the towering karst hill landscape.
A few bars began to open on the river side and tourists started renting tractor tyre inner tubes from the locals to float down the river. Nowadays this is one of the main attractions to Laos and Vang Vieng is developing rapidly.
Tubing took off in a big way and is growing every year. The activity has earned a spot in nearly every travelers “must do” list of activities. If you went tubing today you could expect to see hundreds of young people enjoying riverside raves with everything from rope swings and ziplines to volleyball and mud wrestling, while consuming large quantities of “Beer Lao” and “Buckets”. The New Zealand Herald wrote, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng”.
Most of the backpackers here are young, around 18-21 years old and for many this is their first real taste of freedom. However, either through ignorance or lack of concern, they bring their Western partying habits to this country. In Lao culture certain behaviour like exposing yourself in public or engaging in drunken confrontation is to disgrace oneself and one’s family. This type of behaviour is completely alien to the Laoatians and many locals worry that Lao youth, who are increasingly being influenced by western culture, may begin to mimic the foreign tourists. Many Lao feel that Vang Vieng has lost its soul and will soon become like one of the many sleazy destinations that have sprung up all over Thailand.
Laos is a communalist society. Everything is shared and they have a different concept of property and individualism. Lao people tend to be more collaborative with their resources as opposed to the consumerism and competition-oriented approach adopted in the west. The word for “mine” is the same as the word for “yours” and there is no word for an individual person.
They have a lot to teach us with regards to being sustainable. We live in a world with abundant resources and the technological capabilities to deliver the necessities of life to every human being on the planet, at a minimum. Yet unfortunately we use an outdated, profit-orientated, monetary system that is completely at odds with the social and biophysical well-being of the planet.
This non-profit organization has been inspired by the eco-revolution of the blockaded people of Bougainville or “Mekamui” in the 1990’s.
Bougainville is geographically and ethnically a part of the Solomon Islands yet it has gone through a long history of colonial takeover and subjugation. Today it is considered part of the territory of Papua New Guinea, which itself was under Australian Control until recent years. Bougainville has vast mineral reserves which have attracted foreign interest, particularly with regards to copper. By the end of operations in 1989, the Panguna Mine, controlled by the mining giant Rio Tinto was the largest open-cut mine in the world. The disastrous social and ecological effects of this mine prompted the indigenous Melanesian Bougainvillians to revolt against foreign corporate and political influence. In the war that ensued, which was the bloodiest in the Pacific since WW2, a blockade was put around Bougainville to ensure no resources could enter the island in an effort to starve the local population. Bougainvillians was therefore forced to become self-sufficient and take care of their own needs. They utilized every resource around them, reviving indigenous knowledge of the land and even developing hydroelectric power and making coconut bio-diesel to run their vehicles. Francis Ona, the leader of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army believes the blockade was the greatest thing to happen to the island and its people, as it has empowered them to become self-reliant and free from foreign domination and exploitation.
This conflict appears to represent the first instance of a previously monetary-based, oppressed and destructive society evolving through necessity to what the 95-year-old, self-taught Industrial Designer and Futurist Jacque Fresco refers to as a “Resource Based Economy”. This is when all the resources of the region are classed as common heritage (without ownership) and distributed to those who need them as opposed to those who can afford them. Fresco first observed this system on another Pacific island in the Tuamotu archipelago in Tahiti and believes that there needs to be a return to this style of economic thinking coupled with the intelligent application of science and technology to society and resource management. This system of taking only what the land can provide has been in place with many indigenous communities around the world since the beginning of time and many feel this idea of living in symbiosis with the planet is necessary if we are to achieve full sustainability and social justice on a global scale.
Inspired by this revolution and the concept of a resource-based economic model, we have set-up the non-profit organization “Sustaining Communities” which aims to deliver sustainable Water, Energy and Sanitation technologies to schools throughout Laos and South East Asia in order to allow them to be totally self-sufficient in providing these basic needs for the community. It is hoped that the future generations of Laos can develop their country in a manner that helps to reach towards global sustainability while simultaneously educating and influencing western tourists who visit the region.
With your help we hope to make this dream a reality. In keeping with our sustainability ethos for every $10 donation we receive we shall plant a native tree sapling here in New Zealand ($3) and the remainder shall go towards purchasing the building materials for the first project in Vang Vieng, Laos PDR. Your donation will help improve the biophysical well-being of the local ecosystem while at the same time help to improve the lives and educational capacity of children living in the developing world.