PIG STORIES: Free-Range Porkers in a Little Lao Village
This is the first story in a three-part series examining the lives and deaths of Asian pigs.
Way in the northeastern reaches of Laos, along Highway 2E leading to Dien Bien Phu (think 1954, France and Vietnam), is a small village called Sophoon. Its people are a mix of the Tai Dam, Tai Daeng and Khmu ethnicities that populate the hills stretching from Vietnam in the east to Burma in the west and China to the north. Their homes are simple, mostly made of thatch and wood, with a few glass windows and concrete foundations. The residents of Sophoon live off the land, growing rice, corn and cassava in their fields and a smattering of fruits and vegetables in their household gardens. They raise chickens, ducks and pigs, all given free rein to cluck, quack and snort their way through the village at whim.
The reason my husband, Jerry, and I spent nine days in Sophoon had little to do with livestock (though my interest always turns to food and its origins, no matter where we are). We were there for the bombs. The undulating hills tracing the east-west highway through Phongsali province are littered with the remnants of the U.S. bombing campaign, which began in 1964, ended in 1973, and pummeled the country with bombing raids averaging once every eight minutes for nine years. Thirty percent of those bombs didn’t explode, and here they lay in the Laotian soil-as volatile today as the day they were dropped. In all the years since, not a single bomb-clearance team had removed a single item of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from Phongsali province until Jim Harris came along. This year, this one American brought one small clearance team to Sophoon and got to work, blowing up bombs.
Jerry and I followed.
We all camped in the local dispensary – slat beds, mosquito nets, cold baths with river water scooped from a basin – and ate the local foods prepared by two young women hired to cook. They worked adjacent the dispensary in a small hut with a flimsy door, frequently flung open by local pigs in search of edible loot. Come meal time, we always had a couple of dogs, a chicken and a farrow of grunting little piglets on the premises. Sometimes a fat mama sow would waddle through with fierce, glaring eyes and milk-filled udders swaying to and fro.
All this proximity to the animals got me thinking.
I thought about my suburban upbringing in middle America. I thought about supermarkets with refrigerated meat on Styrofoam trays, cinched in plastic. I thought about Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, and the many ways in which Americans today think more about the origins of their food than ever before. And I thought about Food Inc. and the chickens in barns without windows and the cows crawling on broken legs and the pigs with no room to roam.
And I looked around and wondered: what would Lao villagers think of all that? What would they think of American industrial farming? Of cramped barnyards and thousands of animals sharing dark, tiny spaces?
So I asked them.
Actually, before I even got to the residents of Sophoon, the PCL clearance team medic, Davong, heard my questions and jumped right in.
“It’s not possible to do that,” he said of fencing in farm animals. If villagers restrain their pigs (or chickens or ducks), “what food would they feed them?” Pigs must roam. “The animals look for food by themselves,” he said. “But you also have to feed them in the morning and evening, twice a day. If they were fenced, you’d have to feed them three times a day-plus give them a bath.” And who wants to do that? In some places, villagers buy pig feed. But here in Sophoon, people trek through the forest, gathering bundles of leaves to be cooked with rice husks into pig slop. Animal welfare takes time and money-two things most villagers don’t have extra to spare.
Davong spoke of a community project in the south, in which a Lao bank offered loans to allow villagers to raise pigs in a pen. It didn’t work. “People borrowed money from the bank,” about 3 million kip ($360). But they couldn’t afford the time or expense of keeping penned pigs. They accumulated enormous debt and lost their pigs, their land and their homes.
Besides, Davong said, he’s tasted factory-farmed pork in “the big city” of Vientiane. “Fed by nature is better taste.”
Davong and I chatted through the aid of Yai, the PCL translator. Yai has a slightly different take on the issue. He contracted typhoid a while back, and he suspected it had something to do with the abundance of fecal matter in Lao villages. Free-range animals are good, he said; free-range excrement is not. He had an idea: why not contain all the chickens, ducks and pigs in one large, grassy area on the edge of the village, where the animals could forage freely, happily, pooping wherever they please?
Interesting idea. But unlikely, Yai admitted. Most villagers do what their mothers did. There are few hard and fast rules in Laos, but two stand out: change is slow to come, and people listen to their mothers.
Moving through the village, we stopped to ask a woman named Mon and her cousin, Dee Van, about their animals. “In the daytime the pigs, chickens and ducks wander freely. But in the nighttime, the pigs go to the pig area, the chickens go to the chicken area, the ducks to the duck area.” That’s to prevent the animals from fighting, she said. Shades of Animal Farm.
I described American factory farming and asked the women what they thought about it. “That’s for the economy,” Dee Van said. “We don’t have money here to buy feed for the animals. We raise them only for our families.”
Plus, Mon added, factory farms require medicines and chemicals. “If you feed animals on a farm like that, the taste is not good. It’s only good for the economy,” she said. Traveling Vietnamese vendors visit Sophoon daily with pots and pans and the factory meats to cook in them. The pots at least are popular. “I have tasted factory-farm pigs and chickens before,” Dee Van said. “Not delicious.”
Villagers up and down the dirt path echoed their sentiments. But the free-range notion does not jive with local authorities. They don’t want pigs gobbling up village rice. “The little ones run around,” a pig owner named Taeng told me, but the cops will punish her if her huge sow gets loose and raids a neighboring rice field. It’s a 10,000 kip ($1.19) fine on the first offense, 20,000 kip ($2.38) on the second. Three times, and “the village police take and eat the pig for free.” But that has never happened-yet.
Instead, little pigs worked their noses into unattended bags of food, and corpulent sows ate the scraps that fell from our dinner table-even as village leaders met for a round-table discussion on what to do about so many pigs with so many minds of their own.
It seemed unlikely anything would change. Everyone in the village eats pig-fresh and fatty; boiled and grilled within hours of slaughter. And when Sophoon villagers gather in the forest for animist ceremonies (see Part 2 in two weeks), pig blood and pork are their primary offerings to the village gods.
Who would dare serve a forest god the blood of an animal from a factory farm? Very not delicious.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3.
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