I was a few minutes late arriving at their office, having lost my way cycling through the back streets of Vientiane, challenged by road signs in the beautiful but, to me, incomprehensible Lao script.  I’d tried to phone, having just obtained a local sim card, but failed in my navigation of the phone as well.  I’m pretty sure my complete absence of a sense of direction extends to smart phones as well.   However, Anousone, the capable young Project Manager of the small team of two at Fair Trade Laos was too courteous to mention it, plying me with a welcome glass of cold water while she outlined some of the challenges for this small organisation http://www.laosfairtrade.org/

Since start-up funding was provided from the Netherlands and Swiss Development Corporation in 2010, the organisation has developed and changed.  18 groups and companies were registered initially but by 2012, a stricter focus on 3 specific WFTO ( World Fair Trade Organisation) categories – fair wages, safe working conditions,  no child labour – along with certain environmental standards have seen member numbers drop this year to 10.   It’s a challenge for groups to meet all the WFTO standards at the moment, Anousone explains, with the current lack of availability of local raw materials such as silk and cotton, and in a country where organic production is almost unheard of.  So for FT Laos, the focus for achieving certification is a minimum standard in labour conditions, a priority in a country where labour laws are not adhered to despite appropriate legislation.  The 10 members between them support 3000 farmers and artisans throughout the country. It appears to be a positive first step in the right direction.

Land-locked Laos resembles New Zealand with its small population (7 million) in a similar land area, stretching from mountainous forested regions to the north to the flatter flood plains of the Mekong river to the south. It’s a large area for the small FT Laos team to cover and as you can understand from this excerpt from Wikipedia, the need for the development of Fair Trade initiatives is great, but it’s a challenge.

According to the anti-corruption non-governmental organisation Transparency International, Laos remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This has deterred foreign investment and created major problems with the rule of law, including the nation’s ability to enforce contract and business regulation.[13] This has contributed to a third of the population of Laos currently living below theinternational poverty line (living on less than US$1.25 per day).[14] Laos has a low-income economy, with one of the lowest annual incomes in the world. In 2014, the country ranked 141st on the Human Development Index (HDI), indicating lower medium development.[15] According to the Global Hunger Index(2015), Laos ranks as the 29th hungriest nation in the world out of the list of the 52 nations with the worst hunger situation(s).[16] Laos has also had a poor human rights record.

So what of the future?  FT Laos has been recognised within a new government category as a ‘local not-for-profit organisation’ and is registered with a temporary licence to operate, but in this one-party socialist state, Anousone shares that getting ‘buy in’ and achieving credibility from government officials has been a slow process as they tend to focus on big international NGOs and corporations.  However recently, FT Laos has been able to tie in its work with the increasing focus by large companies on ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’.  There’s the possibility of new funding in the future from the Asean CSR network, once the current Oxfam Norway and Helvetas funding finishes, and ensuring small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) become more focused on social and environmental aspects is something Anousone is passionate about, expressing her concern that outputs from SME’s are rarely checked upon, whereas the big corporates are far more closely monitored.  With the increasing demand from Korea, Japan and Hong Kong for organic products, Anousone see fair trade and social enterprise having a strong future for producers in Laos.    With this small but passionate team at the helm, I have no doubt it will.

In New Zealand, I explained, our focus on fair trade is at the consumer end of the supply chain. I was able to share some of the work of Trade Aid and Making Whangarei a Fair Trade District, two organisations I am honoured to be associated with, and also attempted to outline the work of the Fair Trade Association of NZ and Australia as well as the work of Fairtrade NZ and Australia.  Anousone and I both agree on the value of networking.  I look forward to keeping in touch and working to find ways we New Zealanders can be of support to this small but strong flagship for fair trade in Laos.

After leaving the office, I cycled to visit the 3 Fair Trade retail outlets in Vientiane.  Products range from organic hibiscus tea, mulberry tea, and coffee to soaps, carvings and a wide range of textile products. My favourites – some scarves hand died with indigo by a school teacher who supplements her income in her spare time- can be seen in one of the photos.    And yesterday here in Vang Vieng, my kayak/caving tour provided a stop for mulberry tea and a visit to the organic farm, a social enterprise set up 12 years ago making organic goat cheese as well as the mulberry and hibiscus teas. The farm’s restaurant overlooks the river, and I can vouch for a mug of hot mulberry tea after a day kayaking on the river.  There were a number of overseas volunteers at work on different projects – free board and lodging is offered so long as you stay 2 weeks or more.  It is very tempting – great location – but Rafiki and I have places to go, people to see.  But it looked like a pretty nice place to be – why not consider it yourself?


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