The garden of Phath Kantannam and her husband, Mai Khong, is a slice of Eden
in the hardscrabble hills that crowd the Ou River in northern Laos. Young trees
do not yet bear fruit, but chili, eggplant, banana, and pineapple earn a modest
income. Hedgerows of legumes control erosion on this sloping hectare and provide
fodder for pigs. Stream-fed ponds at the bottom of the vale nurture fish that
the couple share with their children and grandchildren.
Unlike biblical Eden, this garden demands long hours of labor. The couple can spare both land and labor for the garden because their other hectare of rice paddies produces the 2.5 tons of grain that their family of six consumes each year, removing the need to devote their sloping hectare to labor-intensive upland rice. “Without rice, you can’t do anything” is a maxim in northern Laos. Their rice needs secured, Phath Kantannam and Mai Khong can pursue a wealth of options. Improving the yield and reliability of their rice paddies was their first step out of poverty. Planting their hillside garden was their second.