The Trade Flow of Agro-forest Products
and Commodities in Northern Mountainous Region of Laos
YOKOYAMA Satoshi, Ph.D.
Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University
This study focuses on the mountainous region of Ngoi district in Luang Phabang province, where three ethnic groups, the Lao, the Khmu and the Hmong, reside in the same area. In this area, people have gathered forest products for export since the 1990s. There is a long history of forest product gathering in northern Laos. The indigenous peoples, especially Khmu people, have actively gathered benzoin and cardamom for centuries. In the past, governmental peddlers had sold merchandise and purchased agro-forest products from mountain people. After the Lao version of Perestroika or “Chintanakan Mai” in 1986, privately managed general stores and periodic markets appeared on the Ou riverside.
In an ethnic Lao village along the Ou river, seven households have opened general stores since 1985, and by 2003 a total of 15 households were running general stores. These merchants engage in both commodity sales and agro-forest products trading. After the middle 1990s, agro-forest traders appeared in Khmu and Hmong settlements in this mountainous region in addition to the Lao village. The periodic markets are held once every 10 days. Many market stalls and traders come from outside the study area, and mountain people also walk down to the market place from the mountainous area carrying forest products over their shoulders.
Forest products, except for benzoin and cardamom that are traded in this region are not traditional species as food or medicine but new species exported to China after the 1990s. What amazes us is that gatherers and traders do not know the intended use of new forest products in China, that is, local people have little interest in these species.
The Thailand border at Houay Xai and the Chinise border at Boten in northern Laos, which were closed to ordinary people due to governmental policy, were re-opened in the early of 1990s. Afterwards, some Chinese traders directly came to northern Laos by truck to purchase these forest products. Additionally, a number of Chinese merchants opened stalls dealing in electrical products and tools at these periodic markets. The flow of people, goods and information seen after “Chintanakan Mai” have strongly influenced the occupational structure of these mountain peoples.