Food Crisis Hits Laos Hard

The unprecedented surge in global food prices is making life even more difficult for residents of impoverished Laos, where one provincial official is calling on the central government to provide food aid and step up irrigation efforts.

lao-food Vendors sell chickens at a local market in the town of Sam Neua, in Houaphane province on April 5, 2008.

Consumer prices are escalating, according to statisticians at the Lao Ministry of Planning and Investment, and officials and residents say the landlocked country—one of the world’s poorest—has been hit hard by skyrocketing food costs.

The remote, southeastern province of Xekong “faces rice shortages regularly because it is a mountainous region, but now the problem is getting bigger. The central government must consider the issue of irrigation,” provincial investment department director Nouphone Kemmalay said in an interview.

“Getting rice now will be only in the form of general assistance, similar to assistance during typhoon season, such as during the Xang Xarn or Lekila hurricanes, when the Japanese government and the World Bank provided” rice aid, Kemmalay said.

Xekong province lacks valleys and has faced periodic drought, so its rice yield last year also fell short, he said. One 7,000-hectare area yields only 21,000 tons, while a 5,000-hectare area yields less than 20,000 tons.

The government brought in rice from neighboring provinces, such as Champasak in the southwest and Saravanh directly to the north, to feed the population, he said, adding that Xekong has sought similar help this year from the central government in Vientiane.

Xekong ranks among one of the poorest provinces in Laos, with a poorly developed infrastructure and terrain more suited to growing timber and fruit than to growing rice.

Rice millers’ association spokesman Somphone Chandy said prices appeared set to continue rising because the cost of fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation has also surged.

'Things are expensive’

In the southern province of Savannakhet, one resident said people there were feeling the price pinch, with no relief in sight.

“Things are expensive,” Thao Bounthanh said. “The price of rice and the price of food have shifted, but nobody has yet complained or called for help…The cost of living has increased, and people face hardship in paying for food.”

Pork cost 27,000 kip (U.S. $3.09) per kilo in February, he said, but now costs 36,000 kip (U.S. $4.13) per kilo.

“The price of other food staples, such as rice, has also increased, and no official from any involved departments has stepped forward to check prices or provide any assistance,”  Bounthanh said.

Savannakhet province—home of the late Lao communist leader Kaysone Phomvihanh—ranks second behind Vientiane province in development, and its infrastructure is comparatively well developed.

Phongsali lacks flat farming land

Remote, mountainous Phongsali province in the north of the country brings in food from elsewhere—Oudomxai and Luang Namtha provinces—because not enough food is produced to feed Phongsali’s 16,000 mostly rural residents.

“Presently we must buy rice from surrounding provinces,” Ounkeo Kong, the deputy head of the Phongsali Provincial industry and trade office, said. “In our area we still haven't used fertilizer, so the price of fertilizer went up and we haven't bounced back.

“We cannot increase the size of our fields, because there is very little flat land,” he added.

International action

In Washington on May 1, U.S. President George Bush urged legislators to disburse an additional U.S. $770 million in international food aid for developing countries—in addition to U.S. $200 million announced in April.

“With other food security assistance programs already in place, the U.S. is now projected to spend nearly $5 billion in 2008 and 2009 to fight global hunger,” Bush said in a statement, adding that Washington would aim to increase food aid cooperation with other developed countries.

In the Swiss capital, Berne, U.N. agencies and the World Bank pledged April 29 to set up a task force to address surging food prices worldwide—which have resulted in social unrest in several countries and hoarding as well.

“We consider that the dramatic escalation in food prices worldwide has evolved into an unprecedented challenge of global proportions,” the United Nations said in a statement, saying the world’s poorest people were now facing a food crisis.

Higher costs of wheat, rice, and other staples have put extreme pressure on aid providers such as the World Food Programme (WFP), a U.N. agency aiming to feed 73 million people this year.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for international aid to provide the WFP all of the $755 million in emergency funding it needs for the crisis.

Original reporting by RFA’s Lao service. Lao service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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