The future of forests: Developing the potential of youth to support local concerns on climate change in Lao PDR

A transformation is quietly gaining ground in Laos, and behind it is a calm and unassuming young mother of a two-month old baby.  Viengphet is only 29 years old, but already she has influenced the lives of more than 60 youth volunteers in Lao PDR. It is these young people who have in turn branched out to connect with rural school children and community groups around the country to teach and explore what many believe is the major issue of our time: climate change.

As a child growing up in Nahai, a small village outside Vientiane, Viengphet recalls the day when a group of young volunteers came to her school and organized activities with her class. The young volunteers made an impression – Viengphet decided that day that she herself would one day be a volunteer like them.

Viengphet attained her childhood aspiration just a few years later. She became a regular volunteer at the Children’s Development Center in Vientiane. One day the Center had a very special guest – Mr Sombath Somphone, Lao PDR’s first and only winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, an award that is so prestigious that it is referred to as Asia’s Nobel Prize. Viengphet was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear him speak, but never guessed that day would change her life.

The director of the Center approached Sombath, “You need to help Viengphet,” she said. “She has potential – but needs to further her education and get more work experience.” Sombath helped move the suggestion forward. Several months later Viengphet had both a scholarship to study social development at Laos National University and a spot as a volunteer at PADECT, the NGO founded by Sombath.

One good thing leads to another

Viengphet’s supervisor at PADECT (which has now branched out into a new organization called RDA, Rural Development Association), Chanthalangsy, soon recognized Viengphet’s ability to both mobilize grassroots communities and connect with young people. So she offered Viengphet a challenge - to work with communities and youth on the issue of climate change, equity and REDD+.

Viengphet was apprehensive, “I know little about climate change, forestry and social safeguards. And managing a new project is a big responsibility.”

“I know it’s a challenge, but you can do it,” insisted Chanthalangsy. “Climate change is important, and there are two groups that need to understand it - youth and communities living in forested areas. You just need to be brave.”

Viengphet took up the challenge. The first thing she did was reach out to new youth volunteers on the channel they use most – Facebook.

Two students who spotted the post were Mong Souvannaphet and Artphasit Phommachanh, undergraduate students studying forestry at the Agriculture Technical College in Vientiane.  “This is a good chance to learn something outside of the classroom,” said Artphasit.

“I want to learn more than what I can get out of our theoretical university lectures. And hopefully I’ll also improve my speaking skills,” added Mong.

Artphasit and Mong responded to the Facebook post and were asked to come to the interview, along with dozens of other students. They were pleasantly surprised to be accepted.

Viengphet set to work. As the volunteers were all full-time students, she arranged a series of weekend trainings, where the students learned about the role of forests in climate change, the causes of climate change, REDD+, gender, social safeguards and facilitation skills on how to work with communities.

To help with the trainings, she invites special guests, including Dr Kinnalone, Deputy Director of REDD office, Department of Forestry, and Kanchana Wiset from RECOFTC. The trainings used participatory approaches – role plays, music and songs, and team building games like ‘across the poison river’. But Viengphet’s favorite is the Wisdom Box, which she learned from Sombath. Using this tool, Viengphet ensures all the youth volunteers understand the four pillars of sustainable development - Nature, Economy, Society, Wellbeing - and how to use the Wisdom Box to support communities in identifying their most pressing development issues to work on.

“This is so different than how we learn at the university,” said Artphasit. “No one-way lectures.”

“I like how all of the learning completely involves us,” said Mong. “Learning about forest management through role playing – as government officials, local villagers and forest rangers, even as husbands and wives - made the issues understandable and practical.”

Finally the day came for the youth volunteers to visit a local community and practice their new knowledge and training skills, first under the close guidance of Viengphet in a community on the outskirts of Vientiane and then farther afield in other provinces where REDD+ is set to be implemented.

The seeds of understanding take root

Artphasit and Mong found their community trainings eye-opening. As urban youth, visiting the far-flung rural communities posed many challenges. “It was hard to communicate easily with many local people due to the language barriers. We needed to cooperate closely with locals who could understand us, including the village heads and local government officials,” remembers Artphasit.

“And I wasn’t quite prepared for the local conditions, like having no toilets,” added Mong as she covered her shy smile behind her hands.

Artphasit and Mong stuck with their plan and used all the training and skills of the previous months. First they visited a rural primary school, where they used games and songs to get the kids talking about their forest. The next day they took part in a community meeting where they used the participatory approaches they had learned to discuss community concerns about their forest and ideas on how to use forest resources more sustainably.

“My main concerns are food shortages – because there is drought and deforestation,” conveys Mrs Buakham from Houaykhot village in Luang Prabang province, “The students helped me understand I can do something about this. I can help my fellow villagers understand what climate change is, and that there are solutions like growing more drought-resistant crops or developing other livelihood options like textile production. We can also plant trees and find ways to encourage the forest to grow.”

Mr Norjiher, another local community member from Houaykhing village agrees, “There’s a decrease in my crop yields and it’s harder now to find food from the forest. If my community can make plans for land and forest use zones, we can improve our situation.”

Coming back to Vientiane, Artphasit and Mony meet up with Viengphet and other fellow youth volunteers working on the Grassroots project, who themselves have visited other local communities around the country. The volunteers discuss what they can do. They believe that youth and local communities alone cannot solve all the concerns. But they can play a role in reaching out to those who can help – including government, other NGOs and sharing the issues with their own networks.

Viengphet also acknowledges the many issues that need to be scaled up from local communities to government and policymakers. “One of the kopenhuang (Lao for ‘concern’ or ‘fear’) I hear often from local communities is that if REDD+ is implemented, they will no longer be able to access forest resources. I also hear from local communities that they are unclear about forest policies, including what benefits they can get from protecting the forest, or what alternative options are available for local communities such as technical or financial support for their livelihoods if they can’t use forests.”

Chanthalangsy, Viengphet’s supervisor, recognizes the potential of youth to bring about change, “Youth are good at talking openly with local communities, and then bringing the issues back to a wider group. Youth don’t lie, they’re fresh and have energy. This is their strength. They will also be our future leaders, and they give me hope.”

Indeed, Artphasit future plans confirm this, “I want to be a forest officer working to increase forests and create nurseries.”

Mong has similar hopes, “I want to be a forest officer or ranger in the future, and I want to see local communities getting support for their livelihoods. Then in turn, I want to give the messages I’ve learned to the next generation of youth.”

April, 2016