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I recently had the privilege of being selected to undertake a post project appraisal of the UNESCO Fighting Poverty at the Plain of Jars project in the Lao PDR. The Plain of Jars is an upland landscape in Xieng Khouang Province, a remote corner of Northern Laos close to the border with Vietnam. The area was a battleground which suffered intense bombing over ten years during the Vietnam War, and extensive UXO is significant contributor to the poverty of the remote population living there. The area gets its name from the 2000 or so stone jars that are scattered across the landscape, some in groupings of up to 400, others in standing singly. The jars are made of stone and vary in size from 100kg to over 300 tonnes. Very little archaeological research has been carried out in this mysterious and evocative landscape: The most significant excavations took place back in the1930s under the French regime, prior to the Indo-China wars that saw the end of colonialism and the long Vietnam conflict.
It is thought that the jars are funerary urns left by a pre-historic people some 2,500 years ago, but very little is known about the civilization that produced them, or what religious beliefs they represent. Similar but smaller jar sites can be found in NE India and Indonesia, suggesting an ancient trade route. The site is in the process of being put forward by the Lao government for World Heritage enlistment, and four UNESCO projects have so far helped to further this process. The current project was the first to engage with tourism. The 80 or so known jars sites and jars quarries in Xieng Khouang are threatened by the rapid economic development that the Lao PDR is beginning to see, with road construction, agricultural development, inward migration, mining and tourism all increasing in impact.
The UNESCO programme, funded by NZAID, had two objectives: Furthering the concept of “community-based heritage landscape management” (there are only four qualified archaeologists to cover this archaeologically rich country, roughly the size of the UK, and none at the Plain of Jars); and secondly to further community-based tourism (CBT) based around the candidate World Heritage Site (which covers the entire Province). The project sought to deliver a situation where the latter (CBT) would pay for the former (community-based heritage management). In addition the project funded UXO clearance at selected jars sites and villages, and this has undoubted had significant positive impact for villagers’ safety (and for that of tourists) as highly volatile ‘bombies’ (cluster munitions) were uncovered in their hundreds at some of the potential tourist sites.
The project was largely led by UNESCO archaeological expertise rather than tourism, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the first objective (heritage management) has been more successful than the latter. That said however, the Lao PDR is perhaps one few countries where CBT can work quite well, as it still has a highly developed communal village structure where local economic development initiatives are sometimes communally agreed and implemented. The “Nam Ha model” is perhaps the best known (and certainly the best documented) example of CBT development in Laos, and it was that model that the UNESCO project sought to follow:
The sheer number of jars sites and the low volume of tourists create a huge challenge for the project concept, and in reality few tourists are interesting in visiting more than one or two jar sites (“been there, done that”). Eight villages were targeted by the project, but at present only three of these receive sufficient tourists to see the (modest) facilities that the project provided being used:simple restaurants, information booths cum shop, improved access and toilets, all locally managed. A commendable ‘modest intervention’ approach was taken by the project, where communities were provided with funds to build the visitor facilities using local materials and labour. The result is small scale vernacular facilities for small scale tourism, with a strong sense of local ownership. Much of the project’s tourism activity was related to training large numbers of villagers in guiding and other tourism skills however. The scale of training designed into the project was far in excess of the services tourists are likely to need in the foreseeable future. The project did disperse its largesse widely through per diems for attending trainings, although not in the focused way needed for quality tourism development. Villagers’ knowledge and appreciation of the heritage landscape was certainly increased however, and this was an important UNESCO aim..
In the longer term however the concept of CBT funding heritage management at the Plain of Jars is unproven, as is the authorities’ ability to implement the draft WHS Management Plan now prepared for them. Significant development pressures on heritage are certain to come, not least when the new international airport is built and the new direct highway from Vientiane opens in the next few years. The site’s mysterious cachet (and probable future WHS status) will bring increased tourist numbers. The current project has laid some useful groundwork, but a much broader approach than CBT will be needed to manage tourism responsibly here in the future, and to fund heritage management and conservation.
Robert Travers is a current Masters student at ICRT.