|Interview with Kate Auty
4th December 2015
Professor Kate Auty is the Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at University of Melbourne and Chair of the Sustainable Society institute of University of Melbourne. Organizing member of Strathbogie Voices and an AWIA member speaking from Paris.
Q. What were you doing just prior to coming to Paris, Kate?
I was fortunate enough to be in the former French colonies of Laos and Vietnam where I toured forest plantations, villages, sawmills furniture factories and hydro plants from Vientiane to Da Nang.
From 15th to 28th November I travelled with Professor Rod Keenan of Forestry and Eco System Science at the University of Melbourne and with 24 master students.
For me, Laos is a place “where women hold up more than half of sky” and one of my abiding memories will be watching women weave fabrics of beauty on rudimentary looms positioned on dirt floors under their houses with children and pets in immediate proximity.
Q. How has that experience shaped the way you are thinking about things here in Paris?
It’s ironic to come from developing nations which were French colonies and contrast the living standards, expectations and aspirations of both.
In Laos, people wanted a living standard which allowed them to have food security as currently they only have 3 months of food security in rice. They seek better health and health care for their families. It was very salutary to note that deaths in childbirth are high and infant mortality in the villages is still very high.
Q. What is being achieved in a country which is directly affected by climate change but has few resources with which to tackle them?
Schools are being built but people need to be convinced that education will lead to future opportunities. The literacy rate of adult women, particularly in one village we visited was that for every 100 women only 5 can read and write.
This really reinforced for me that we, in the west need to accept our responsibilities for climate change and the impacts that these will have on such deeply affected communities and cultures.
For instance our demand for energy (e.g. from Thailand ) has meant that not only does Laos now export 90% of its energy, but also has to deal with the impact of the hydro being in their country. It was confronting to see that the villages we visited did not have access to electricity.
Q. Is there a difference between village and town life? The rural and the urban existence?
There was a gulf between village life and that of the cities and towns. Those we met who lived in towns knew something about what was happening in Paris, but in the villages they were all much more focused on day to day subsistence.
In the capital and other large town’s public servants and foresters knew of the COP taking place, and comments made included:
- First, that we needed to find solutions to climate change with integrated management practices, and that, second, people in Paris were making “important decisions” for them.
- They also told us that climate change was something that we had to seriously think about because of droughts and floods and those issues were of very pressing concern in the Mekong at this moment.
Q. What were these issues?
People were aware of changing climate and its impact on business and communities. For example at one hydro plant a deluge of 400mm in 3 hours had meant destruction all the way down the river system and the Laotian government had to implement its natural disaster plan to deal with the erosion wash away.
In Vietnam, people were greatly concerned that this had been the driest rainy season on record. For communities which still rely heavily on foraging for food, the failure of the rainy season can have devastating impacts.
Q. Did you come away with any feelings of hope?
In the village of Ban Takor it was heartening to see a school had been built, a teacher employed, teacher’s housing provided and children clearly enjoying the school experience.
The real quandary about education is how this is then used to ensure that employment opportunities are taken advantage of.
We saw that women were employed in a variety of settings including the sawmills, furniture factories etc., but I noted with some real concern while safety notices were evident, OH&S appeared to be of a low priority.
In spite of low literacy it was interesting to see the women actively involved in the markets where they were entrepreneurial and adept at business.
Women were everywhere and there was little that they not involved in or active in making happen.
We were pleased to meet some women who had used education to enable them to establish careers in forestry, agricultural science. For me, one woman in particular stood out as a sawmill and manufacturing entrepreneur having started with virtually nothing and expanding her interests and in doing so employed her five daughters – One of whom was driving a heavy logging truck, not a common sight!
Q. Thank you Kate … Any final reflections?
So now I am here in Paris … Walking the urban streets of the colonial capital. What do I think about the women of Laos… What would they say?
They would marvel at what has been created in part, by the labor of their colonial past.
The message from these women is: our aspirations for food security and our children’s futures are legitimate and we are concerned that we will be overborne by a change in climate which is not of our making.
Villagers in Laos
Laos counts the cost of climate change: record floods, drought and landslides read more here