Somphone Bouasavanh: Cord’s Country Representative in Laos Somphone Bouasavanh is Cord’s Country Representative in Laos. A Lao, who grew up in Nangew village in Luang Prabang, a northern province of Laos, he has seen first-hand the impact that decisions taken by those in power have had on the poor of his country. Somphone is passionate about Cord’s work, supporting people to access their human rights and improve their living conditions. Here is his story…. “My family are jungle people, we lived deep inside the jungle, I grew up there, there was no road, there was no electricity, and I remember we lived without cash and without a market during my childhood. But the Indochina war pushed us to leave the forest and we came to live in the city. This is a story similar to Cord, Cord was formed because of the war and I’m motivated to work for Cord because it’s linked somehow to my childhood”. … I was lucky, when we moved to the town I went to school and at that time there were a lot of scholarships on offer from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries and I was selected to study in DDR - East Germany. Somphone wasn’t able to choose the subject he studied, that decision was taken by the Lao government. When he learned that he was to study Forestry he couldn’t understand why: “I couldn’t understand because we had more than 70% forest in Laos! I proposed that I study road engineering because we didn’t have roads in the jungle and rural areas when I was a boy and I thought that I could bring roads to other places and provinces, but the government said that it was their decision and I had to study Forestry”. Returning to Laos after his studies, Somphone spent 15 years working as a university professor, teaching Forestry, and then another 15 years as Country Director for WWF-Laos. He therefore has experience of both working for the government and also working for an organisation where dialogue with the government is crucial. During his time at WWF-Laos, Somphone learned that the director of a local NGO had been abducted and ‘disappeared’. His line manager asked him to leave the country for his own safety, but he said “…it’s my personal opinion that leaving the country is not the solution, staying here and talking to the government is”. Somphone is therefore passionate about working for Cord and enabling dialogue between local civil society organisations (CSOs) and the government. In the past it was difficult for an organisation in Laos to register as a local CSO. Somphone thinks that this is because the government assumed they would be backed by outsiders who would stir up anti-government activity. However, thanks to joint efforts from Cord and other organisations, the government finally issued a ministerial decree on the establishment of associations (local NGOs) in 2017, allowing CSOs to be formally registered. Somphone is proud to say that Cord has supported over 80 of these organisations which are improving the lives of ordinary people throughout the country. Before the war, Somphone remembers that he and his family only went to the city once or twice a year, mainly to take non-timber forest products to the market (mushrooms, bamboo products, etc) and exchanging them for salts and clothes. It would take them most of the day to walk there. At that time the village environment was healthy, and people had access to the forest’s natural resources and clean water. Sadly now the river has little or no water during the dry season (October – May), the forest has been degraded and much of it has gone altogether due to commercial activity including timber logging and conversion of the forest for other land use. “Because the villagers are poor and they don’t know the law, it’s difficult for them to protect their forest, so if a company has the land concessions and they come to the village and convert their village supermarket into rubber plantations or for timber, the people’s knowledge is limited, and they don’t know what they can do. But this is what Cord is about, trying to protect the poor and the villagers and at the same time trying to work with the government so that both sides co-operate and the villagers aren’t impacted [negatively] by government decisions or policy”. Cord creates a space for the people and officials to come together to find just and peaceful solutions. Somphone is proud of the fact that Cord is currently working with more than 80 local associations, providing training and coaching to help build their capacity. He says that he has a vision that one day the organisations will have the confidence to engage in policy dialogue with the government themselves and not just work on the ground at local level. “We believe that one day they will be strong…” Thank you for your generous support which is helping to transform communities throughout Laos. You are helping Somphone’s dreams to be realised.