National Geographic : 1974 Jan
half hour and we landed back in the city of Vientiane (map, page 82). My trek through the mountains had pro vided depressing insights into the plight of the Hmong and into their wasteful slash-and burn system of agriculture. We had walked through the fields of four villages, green with young rice shoots and crisscrossed by thou sands of blackened logs that would have been worth hundreds of dollars each. Later when I flew over areas crowded with refugee villages, the scene previewed the effects of population growth. After only a few years of deforestation these hills lie as scarred and scabbed as a dog with mange. At the normal pace, which sees 400 square miles burned each year, all forests in Laos will be destroyed in a century. The lush jun gle grows with weedlike speed, but Dr. War wick Forrest, an Australian adviser to the Department of Waters and Forests, told me: "It would take a thousand years to regrow those virgin forests. The trees take only three or four hundred years once they start, but they come at the end of a long ecological cy cle that begins with grasses and low brush." Resettlement Hinges on Cooperation The Hmong's principal spokesman, Maj. Gen. Vang Pao, deplores the traditional method of agriculture. "In one year," he told me, "a single family will chop down and burn trees worth perhaps $6,000 and grow a rice crop worth only $240. Our people must come down from the mountains. We must demand our share of the fertile, irrigated land." He envisages moving some of the Hmong refugees west toward the Thailand border. More than 1,000 already have been success fully settled in this area on irrigated paddy land. But resettling more will require unprec edented cooperation among the Hmong, the government, and the Pathet Lao, who con trol much of the area. "We have no problems with the Pathet Lao we can't resolve," Vang Pao said. With cus tomary optimism, he feels that in peace many of his people can return to the mountain homes they lost in war. As we toured refugee villages by helicopter, he politicked with all the finesse of a ten-term congressman. Wear ing a bright blue flight suit decorated with military unit patches, an American flag on his left shoulder, and a Laotian flag on the right (page 89), he listened sympathetically to the problems of the refugees. The Hmong of Laos: No Place to Run Something was very wrong when Edgar (Pop) Buell, a retired Indiana farmer with 14 years among the Hmong, landed with the author at Phu Pha Daeng. Three children had died in three days and two more were desperately ill. Villagers blamed 200 nursery plants brought by Gary Alex of the U. S. Agency for International Development in the hope of encouraging alternate crops to opium. Buell examines one of the sick chil dren (above), while Gary radios the heli copter to evacuate them to a hospital. Diag nosis: a mosquito-borne virus. Prognosis: both would live. The spirit of the big rock brought death, insists the village shaman (opposite, center). It had taken offense at the plants Gary had put on its sacred ground. When the plants were removed, the exorcism began. Lattice like ritual signs are smeared with pig blood, and the pig cooks while the shaman per forms healing rites.