October 2011 saw the start of orchid production at the Paksong Orchid Project supported by a grant from Orchid Conservation International (OCI) towards the cost of setting up the first orchid propagation laboratory in southern Laos.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world but is rich in biodiversity, much of which has not been studied. Orchid species with commercial value are rapidly being depleted from the Dong Houa Sao National Biodiversity Conservation Area (NBCA), in the Paksong District of Champasak Province of Lao PDR. Rural people in the area partially depend on income earned from selling wild orchids collected from the forest of the NBCA for their livelihoods. This is bad news both for the orchids and the rural people who collect them. Collectors already say they can no longer find some of the species they used to find in abundance just a few years ago.
The Paksong Orchid Project (POP), led by Eddie Vernon and Chansouk Southivong, are legally collecting orchid seed pods from suitable orchid populations and from cultivation and using them to propagate seedlings in vitro in a laboratory and growth room which was set up with funding from OCI. POP hopes to discourage villagers from collecting orchids from the wild, and instead help them to turn to cultivating orchids in their own backyards using seedlings supplied from the Project laboratory. After weaning the seedlings, they will be supplied to local people for cultivation in backyard nurseries, many of whom also grow coffee as a crop for sale. Attaching the orchids to the branches of coffee bushes is an effective, low cost way to grow orchids, not requiring any investment in shade houses.
At a later stage, POP also intends to assist the local people to market their cultivated orchids legally with CITES certification. Currently the international trade of wild orchids from Laos to neighboring countries is illegal, without any CITES certification. When POP has proven itself to be successful, this conservation approach could be replicated in other areas of Laos and elsewhere in the world.
The primary aims of POP are to:
Conserve species by relieving harvest pressure on wild orchids in the forests of Paksong District.
Provide a sustainable second income for rural people, who currently collect wild orchids, by enabling them to engage in backyard cultivation of orchids raised from seedlings produced in vitro.
Another angle to be pursued by this conservation enterprise is the development of an orchid conservation garden and orchid trail for both tourists and local people including school children to learn from and enjoy.
The development of the Paksong Orchid Project has been assisted not only by OCI but also by the Writhlington School Orchid Project in the UK and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Writhlington students have visited Laos and funded Chansouk Southivong to travel from Paksong to the UK for to learn laboratory techniques at the school and at Kew.
In October 2011, a Writhlington School team, including Dr Lauren Gardiner from RBG Kew, came to Paksong to help commission the POP laboratory.
Photos: Top left Chansouk Southivong, right; Dendrobium chrysotoxum, Bottom left to right; ???, Coelogyne trinervis and logging lorries.