Exploring pathways towards resilience: vulnerabilities and adaptation to changes in the Lao Uplands


23 February 2018 – NAFRI Soil Center Meeting Room

Vulnerability generally refers to the degree to which a system is unable to cope with, or adapt to, negative effects of external shocks. Most attempts to characterize vulnerability build on three main dimensions: (i) exposure to hazards, (ii) sensitivity, and (iii) response capacities. Mountain regions and their inhabitants have long been associated with certain stereotypes such as their low capacity to adapt to climate change because of poor socioeconomic development. Within this logic, upland people are perceived as more vulnerable. But empirical evidences suggest that the vulnerability of local communities is rooted in complex dynamics that call for investigations beyond mountain stereotypes that supposedly increase vulnerability.

Old versus new vulnerabilities

Upland populations are well known for the adaptation practices they have developed over the years to weather uncertainties through agroecology practices valorizing agrobiodiversity (e.g. mix of different rice cultivars and different crops in upland fields, staggered sowing dates, crop cultivation in different sites to spread the risk of failures) and social practices (e.g. NTFP and livestock safety nets, off-farm activities of some family members). Their production context has changed over the years with their rapid integration to market that increased their dependence to external factors (prices of products, contracts with traders, economic regulations). As a consequence, their risk management practices may not be valid anymore under the new conditions. The profound changes in socioecological systems are well expressed by the upland farmers (Farmers voices, 2012) when they point for example that:

  • They have too many children. 7 to 10 children per family was an asset at the time of subsistence farming but is becoming a burden with the change in life style and education requirement that increases very much their need for cash,
  • They are entirely dependent on economic fluctuation that are external to their system for the cash crop they produce with a lot of stress brought by changing prices, contract breaking, market uncertainties,
  • Forest and fallows conversion into agricultural lands, shortening fallows and intensive use of chemical inputs on cash crops are depleting their natural resource base. The rats have changed status from food to pest. The generalization of mono-cropping and simplification of practices also increase risks of crop failures and decreasing productivity.

Adaptation planning versus adaptive capacity

The vulnerability of upland communities is linked to their adaptive capacities, which refer to the ability of a system to respond to, adjust, or even take advantage of changes or shocks. Effective and sustainable adaptation measures often build on active participation of local stakeholders and sound integration of context-specific knowledge and practices. Strictly top-down adaptation strategies fall short of capturing the great diversity of local upland environments and, consequently, can lead to poorly adapted actions, perceived by communities as good intentions rather than relevant interventions. On the other hand, exclusively grassroots-level perspectives may be too narrow (short vs long-term perspectives) and/or too context specific to allow findings to be scaled up, transposed, and generalized. Increasing resilience thus requires to combine adaptive capacity as a bottom-up dynamic that builds on local creativity, knowledge, and innovation, and adaptation planning as a top-down, institutional approach aimed at generating the conditions for adaptation.

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA)

While the occurrence of large-scale disasters is relatively rare in Laos compared to other regions of the world, the high and increasing frequency of smaller-scale events constantly threatens the fragile development gains. Climate change is expected to raise temperatures, modify precipitation patterns and increase both the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather-related events, thereby threatening people’s coping and adaptation capacities. In this context, the Government of Laos (GoL) has endorsed the mainstream, globally accepted DRR and CCA agenda, mechanisms, norms, and models (e.g. the Hyogo Framework for Action – HFA), and complied with the paradigm shift from a top-down, response-oriented disaster management approach to a more holistic, bottom-up model that acknowledges the importance of preparedness and mitigation at all levels of society. As a result, community-level development and policy interventions have mushroomed in Laos, often with support from international development partners.

Small Agricultural Rural infrastructure (SARI e.g. small-scale irrigation networks, paddy fields and river bank reinforcement, water supply infrastructure) can also play a key role in DRR an CCA strategies. However, the negotiation of rules and mechanisms for the management and maintenance of such infrastructure is usually neglected, jeopardizing the profitability of such investments.

The development of early warning systems to alert farmers on climatic hazards have mushroomed worldwide and in Laos, with however limited evidence regarding their impact on farming communities vulnerability to climatic hazards.

The purpose of this workshop was to review lessons from these initiatives and to formulate and propose concrete, evidenced-based policy recommendations.


Issues and questions addressed during the workshop 

  • Approaches and challenges in assessing the vulnerability of mountain communities: rethinking vulnerability beyond stereotypes
  • Linkages vulnerability, poverty and adaptation planning to better understand the relations between adaptive capacity and socioeconomic development,
  • Potential gaps in the institutional framework and coordination mechanisms from an adaptation perspective,
  • Mechanisms to buffer the potentially negative consequences of rapid market integration on people (e.g. through education) as well as on the environment (e.g. through soil and forest conservation)
  • Impact of integrated landscape management and small agricultural rural infrastructure on farming community sensitivity to climatic hazards
  • Impact of early warning systems on farming community response capacity to climatic hazards

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