Fish, frogs and forest vegetables

22 July 2009 | News story

For many people, food isn't something they collect from the supermarket shelf, but straight from nature, be it forests, rivers or wetlands. But when this free food supply runs out, there are few alternatives left for them. Here, we look at rural populations in Lao PDR and examine how they rely directly on nature for their very survival.

What’s the problem?

Lao PDR is classified as a “least developed country”. In 2004, 71 percent of its population lived on less than US$2 a day and 23 percent on less than US$1 a day. Despite the steady economic growth of the last 15 years, the nutritional status of the Lao population has not improved and food insecurity still affects parts of the population.

The economy is largely subsistence-based and agriculture remains the major sector. Only 27 percent of the population lives in urban areas and significant parts of the country are mountainous, uncultivable and inaccessible by road.

In 2007, the World Food Program published a ‘Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis' report for Lao PDR. It concluded that every second child in the rural areas is chronically malnourished. This is alarmingly high and the same level as 10 years ago.

Two thirds of the rural population are either food insecure (13 percent) or live on the edge of food security and could become food insecure should a shock occur during the year, according to the report. It also found dietary intake of fat is generally too low. Wild meat and fish are the main sources of protein and fat. As these natural resources are under threat, it is critical to ensure their preservation and households’ access to them.

How is food security threatened?

Wildlife and forest resources were plentiful until the early 1980s, but population pressure has imposed increasing demands on natural resources, leading to a decline of the overall resource base on which the villages depend.

Production of rain-fed rice now underpins the livelihood system, but poor sandy soils, declining soil fertility and unreliable rainfall continue to impose regular rice shortages.

While the forest continues to play an important role in the village livelihood system, particularly as a source of daily food, forest resources are becoming less plentiful due to competitive harvesting and habitat loss.

What’s the solution?

Forests, rivers and wetlands are a robust source of natural foods, especially for poor families. The quality and quantity of this ‘free’ food supply is hard to replace.

Investing in the preservation of these biodiversity resources is a cost-efficient nutrition strategy, in comparison with fishponds and farms, which need more labour and capital investments per unit of food produced.

Creating awareness on the nutrition values of natural foods may also become a powerful incentive for local communities to manage local wild food resources sustainably.

Malnutrition in Laos needs to be addressed urgently. Wild foods need to be put central in national nutrition strategies. In Lao PDR, this is already happening, as the national nutrition strategy emphasizes education and raising awareness on the benefits of wild foods for a healthy diet.

Nutrition strategies that promote sustainable use of wild foods also provide a powerful incentive to local communities to preserve the biodiversity resources that surround them. Linking nutrition with biodiversity provides a promising strategy for sustainable poverty alleviation.