Lao - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Lao economy is based on subsistence rice production, usually in paddies, but also in swiddens in hilly areas. The rice-growing season extends from about June through December; dry-season vegetable crops are planted in some areas where water can be carried. A few villages with irrigation systems grow a second rice crop during the dry season. Most rural families have livestock including water buffalo, brahmin cattle, pigs, and poultry. Buffalo are the main source of farm draft power.

Industrial Arts. In the past Lao women wove most of the cloth for their family's clothing, but manufactured clothing is now steadily replacing all but the traditional woman's skirt ( pha sin ). Many villages have artisans such as blacksmiths, carpenters, or boatwrights, who are dependent on farming but practice their specialty when the need arises. Some villages specialize in activities such as pottery, charcoal, or tobacco production.

Trade. Although most Lao villages have access to market goods, trade is very limited, primarily because roads are poor or nonexistent. Traveling merchants who sold medicines and household goods, and bought farm produce and handicrafts, were strongly discouraged in the first years of the new government but are now reappearing. Rural families can also sell small agricultural surpluses and forest products at district market towns. A state marketing network buys and sells produce and dry goods on an irregular basis.

Division of Labor. Different farming and household tasks tend to be assigned to men and women, though the division is not rigid and anyone can perform any task without social disapproval. Women and girls are primarily responsible for cooking, household maintenance, carrying water, and care of small domestic animals. They also transplant rice and weed swidden fields. Men and older boys are primarily responsible for the care of buffalo and oxen, for hunting, and for plowing the paddy or clearing the swidden fields. The oldest working man in the household directs household rice production and represents the family in temple rituals and village councils. Both men and women plant swiddens, harvest, thresh and carry rice, and work in the gardens. Most Lao petty traders have been women.

Land Tenure. In the past, all land theoretically belonged to the king; now all land belongs to the state. In practice, use rights may be bought and sold, but there is little trade in land. Paddy-land holdings are relatively equally distributed, with only a few influential families owning more than 20 hectares prior to 1975. Presently paddy holdings average around 1 hectare per family, with few families controlling more than 3 hectares. Except in urban areas, almost all families have access to some farm land. Swidden fields are used temporarily by farmers who claim no permanent rights to these fields.

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