Local knowledge and land degradation: A case study in the uplands of Laos
This paper presents the results of a study using participatory techniques to assess soil erosion in Ban Lak Sip, an upland village of northern Laos. Since 2000, soil erosion and related indicators have been measured in a 67-hectare watershed making up 15 percent of the village land. Measurements have included the survey of rill dynamics and the monitoring of sediment discharge in weirs. Due to the relative short time series (i.e. five years), these measurements provide only limited information on the long-term environmental change and the significance of the land degradation issue in the village. However, several group discussions and the results of a questionnaire survey indicate that a majority of farmers considers that, over the past fifteen years, there has been an important increase in soil erosion across the village land. Local knowledge related to land degradation processes and factors appears remarkably detailed. During group discussions, farmers identified several indicators of soil erosion and, on this basis, were able to reconstruct the history and predict the evolution of the village land, showing a continuous degradation trend that, without change in the current farming practices, would lead to the impossibility of cultivating upland annual crops in the next 10 to 40 years. Accordingly, this perception of land degradation has lead to a number of livelihood adaptations. Using such a ‘hybrid research’ approach integrating biophysical measurements and local perceptions of environmental change allow gaining a better understanding of local environmental issues and adaptive livelihood change. By extension, the approach provides valuable insights for identifying potential solutions to land degradation that are well adapted to the local socio-economic context.