written by THE TRAVEL WORLD:
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“Lao Clay School Project” by VICTORIA OKOYE, The Travel World
Laos, Luang Prabang, The “Clay School Project”:
Fair Trek Builds Opportunities, One School at a Time
Although landlocked and small in population, Laos is an enchanting country of immense beauty, with lush green countryside, and unique and diverse ethnic groups.
Tiger Trail is bringing Laos alive for travellers from around the world. Tiger Trail, a leading sustainable adventure organization that, for more than 12 years now, has been creating and promoting local development through tourism in Laos. Now, through its Fair Trek initiative that supports community-based tourism, Tiger Trail has added a simply unique community development project. The Clay School Project is benefiting local communities directly through volunteer interaction and tourism activities within this remote community in northern Laos.
The Luang Prabang Clay School Project
The Clay School Project aims to bring in international volunteers to support the construction of clay-brick schoolhouses. Construction efforts are initially planned in two remote Lao communities where Tiger Trail has a strong presence through a steady flow of international volunteers.
The first school is currently under construction in the village of Naluang, located in the Luang Prabang District of Nam Bak Province in northern Laos. In Naluang village, the sole existing school building is a bamboo hut only large enough for the youths from four to eight years of age. Now, in early July 2011, Fair Trek, along with community members and international volunteers, began construction of a three-classroom structure to accommodate the approximately 100 school-age youths in the area. As of the time of writing, the building’s foundation is complete, as are the adobe bricks needed for the walls. The project is expected to take two to three months.
Fair Trek team member prepared a Lao lesson of the blackboard, while the only teacher from the village was standing in the middle and trying to gather intention from the little kids.
Promoting Ecological Sustainability
For thousands of years, clay, mud and adobe have been used for the construction of buildings, particularly in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. However, this practice is less common in Laos.
Although the use of sun-dried bricks made of clay soil, sand, hay and water is a novelty in Laos, for Fair Trek, the benefits of using these materials are four-fold. First, the construction materials are all natural. Second, the building will be climate-appropriate for this tropical, humid and hot region. Clay walls help to control humidity and keep heat and sound outside, resulting in a cool, quiet and comfortable learning environment. Third, the materials will be locally sourced as much as possible, and the project will rely on volunteer support, keeping construction and labour costs to a minimum. Fourth, local villagers – leaders, men, women, children and volunteers – can be involved in clay construction because there is no need for intensive training or skilled labour.
A Fair Trek team member (grey top) joined an adobe workshop at Baan Rangnok in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The seven-day workshop taught how to build a small adobe building, of around 15m2, including every step of adobe construction, from making mud bricks to painting. Photo courtesy of Fair Trek
Because of the non-traditional materials used for building the schools, obtaining government approval for construction has presented challenges, which have been turned into opportunities to promote environmental building practices.
Winna Boonkham, Responsible Tourism Manager at Tiger Trail, who has participated in an earthen building workshop in Thailand for this project, interfaced with government officials. “I had to draw all benefits for them to see, including financial, environmental, social, educational benefits,” she explained.
Approvals having successfully been received, Boonkham looks forward to using Tiger Trail staff experience and training in mud building to promote a new sustainable form of construction. Local community members will naturally learn the clay building methods as part of the project: “So in the future, they may not even need us or anyone to help them build something – a library for example!” says Boonkham. At least the school “can be the model for the next mud school in Laos.”
A front view of the proposed clay-brick school, which will contain three classrooms, each with one door and four windows. The footings, foundation, columns and roof support will be concrete, but the walls will be filled with sundried-mud bricks (adobe). Standard roof tiles will be applied with wooden supports.
Broad and Beneficial Community Participation
Villagers’ participation and work support of the project is central to its success. As a vital first step to realizing this project, Fair Trek worked with the communities and their leaders to set up village funds, which are financial accounts created to support community initiatives. Community members then identified their most pressing needs, and with each Tiger Trail tour to the community, some of the tours proceeds are added into the account. From this first step, Fair Trek created a shared commitment with the villagers to achieve their main goal: improving educational opportunities for youth.
While the village fund will be a key source of financing for the project, another essential contribution will be the volunteer construction labour, primarily from villagers sacrificing some working hours in the field. But construction can be shared by all community hands; for example, when the men are working in the fields, the women and children can participate in the mud construction. Villagers will also provide accommodation and food for volunteers who come from abroad to help build.
A meeting between the Fair Trek team and Naluang villagers in Laos was held to introduce and demonstrate adobe construction. The result was that the villagers were interested and happy to learn and support whatever they can for the construction of this mud school. Photo courtesy of Fair Trek
The community has necessarily been at the heart of project planning too. “Since the start, they had to agree about what we are building and when, what they will have to do, what we will have to do, such as managing the space for the activities. This project will make the village so busy and full of people for the time… and they accepted that,” Boonkham said.
The Clay School Project provides a win-win experience for both the villages and volunteer travellers. More than 50 volunteers from the United Kingdom are expected to participate in the school construction in the village of Naluang to the benefit of both the communities and the volunteers: Communities receive fundraising support and extra labour power in building improved educational facilities, while volunteers receive a unique and meaningful travel experience through the opportunity to be part of the locals’ traditional rural lives and lend a hand in a community development project.
The school land and chief of Naluang village, Laos. The land is right in front of the community, and has been intended for a school for many years. The chief was proud and happy that finally the children soon will have a new school.