Over the past few decades, the Co Tu community in Ca Dy Commune has been through a turbulent period with a great deal of regulatory and social change that, on top of the serious problems they face due to climate change, have had significant impacts on the local community. This period started with the prohibition of swidden cultivation due to regulatory changes regarding land use and forest protection in 1991, followed by additional laws and programs. Swidden farming was a type of cultivation that was associated with an entire traditional lifestyle and social and cultural system. The disappearance of swidden cultivation forced women to change their farming practices and moreover led to a decrease in men’s participation in farming because their role had been centered around cutting big trees to facilitate the women’s and men's traditional farming practices.
The second most important change was the hunting ban, originally designed to protect wild animals in forested areas. This removed the most critical livelihood activity of the Co Tu men, which was considered a symbol of masculinity to the Co Tu people. (Observers also noted that the new regulations did not necessarily protect the animals in forested areas, at least initially, as outsiders took advantage of illegal hunting and logging opportunities for cash purposes; these problems emerged as the villagers' earlier shared system of access to forest resources came to an end.) As a consequence, regulatory changes have had important gender implications as they affected both Co Tu women and men in significant but very different ways, with middle-aged and young men becoming more disengaged from livelihood and community activities and women and girls having to take on new roles and burdens to ensure their family’s survival.
In addition, a wide range of social changes began with the construction of National Route 14B in 2004-2005 and later with the loss of government subsidies caused by the community's loss of status as an "especially poor commune" (from 2008 to 2012). These changes have resulted in increased interactions between the Co Tu and the Kinh communities by facilitating travel to and from Ca Dy Commune, ending the commune’s isolation, and by greatly increasing the villagers’ financial pressures and cash-based requirements for a population that rarely used much money or relied on cash-based incomes in the past.
Climate, regulatory and social changes have thus all combined to affect Co Tu villagers in terms of both rapidly reducing food security for families and the community as a whole and forcing changes in their livelihood systems, practices, values and beliefs. The following chapter will look at the shifting relations between husbands and wives tied to changes in their roles and status in the family and in the community. There have also been strong effects on young women and young men as they face these new pressures and difficulties - and indeed, for some, new opportunities as well.
1 Interestingly, a study conducted in four forest-dependent villages in Lao PDR found that incomes derived from land under swidden cultivation are often underestimated (Van Der Meer Simo et al., 2019). The study was undertaken in order to understand why rural Lao farmers continue to prefer swidden techniques to practices policymakers and practitioners generally believe to be more profitable and environmentally protective. It was found that swidden cultivation actually accounted for 75% of the mean annual household livelihood incomes of the Lao cultivators, and they were reluctant to give up these techniques because they found them to be more productive. Moreover, as noted previously, there are questions about which approach is more environmentally sound (this depends on many factors); however, the Lao farmers presumably found these swidden techniques to be sustainable in their social and environmental context because if they found negative environmental impacts, they might be more open to change.
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