Our latest student profile is with Ph.D. graduate Pao Vue, who recently defended his dissertation on how government laws and policies, the capitalistic market economy, and advances in technologies are affecting Hmong villagers’ livelihoods in central Laos. Pao, who worked with Professor Ian Baird, is the first Hmong American to conduct extensive fieldwork in Laos (approximately 23 months). He spoke with us about what drew him to the UW-Madison Geography program, his dissertation topic, fieldwork experience, and the work he plans to do next.
What drew you to the Geography Ph.D. program at UW-Madison?
The three most important factors I considered in determining where to apply for graduate school are 1) the faculty and staff, 2) access to resources, and 3) the department’s reputation.
A department’s faculty and staff are crucial to students’ academic successes. Thus, I made it a requirement that departments I submit a prospective student application to have faculty members who are working on issues related to my own interests as well as in areas where I want to conduct my research. In my case, I wanted to conduct research on the interactions and relationships between the Hmong ethnic group and the environment in Southeast Asia (specifically, Laos). It just so happened that Ian Baird, who has done extensive research on issues pertaining to villagers’ livelihoods in Southeast Asia, had just joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Geography as a faculty member.
Access to resources was another important factor I considered while deciding on where to apply for graduate school. Not only must online resources be accessible, but obtaining actual physical copies of the resource of interest (e.g., maps, books) is crucial for me to learn and gain the necessary skills to succeed. The Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has extensive access to such resources.
The department’s consistent ranking among the top geography programs in the nation made it an attractive place to pursue advanced studies in geography. Specifically, the People-Environment thematic area was extremely attractive to me as an aspiring geographer who is passionately interested in pursuing research to further understand current interactions between people and their surroundings.
Tell us about the dissertation you recently defended: “Hmong livelihood strategies: Factors affecting hunting, agriculture, and non-timber forest product collection in central Laos.”
This dissertation investigates how government laws and policies, the capitalistic market economy, and advances in technologies are affecting Hmong villagers’ livelihoods in central Laos, how they view these factors, and finally, how they are responding to these changes in order to continue to spatially navigate and use the surrounding lands to meet and/or enhance their livelihoods.
What led you to this topic?
Southeast Asian countries, including Laos, are some of the most biologically diverse and resource-rich countries in the world. However, the region has not garnered as much attention as other comparable regions. This means that problematic environmental issues in these areas are also being overlooked. Thus, I wanted to help draw attention to these issues in the region. Furthermore, I wanted to work with the Hmong as (besides the fact that I am Hmong) they are the third most populous ethnic group in Laos and are often associated with many of the country’s environmental problems as they tend to live near areas with important conservation values where they engage in swidden agriculture, hunting, and the collection of various kinds of non-timber forest products.
You are the first Hmong American to conduct extensive fieldwork in Laos (approximately 23 months). Can you tell us about that experience and some of the rewards and challenges of fieldwork?
A brief synopsis is necessary to give readers a better grasp on the issue of my, being the first Hmong American to conduct extensive research in Laos.
Starting in the early 1960s, the United State Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) started recruiting Hmong villagers in Laos to fight against the North Vietnamese Army and the communist Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War or the Secret War) to contain communism. It has been estimated that anywhere from a third to 2/3 of the total Hmong population in Laos heeded the call, sided with the United States, and fought against communism while others sided with the Pathet Lao. After the U.S. pulled out of the conflict and Laos fell to communism in the early to mid-1970s, the Pathet Lao implemented a genocidal campaign to seek out and punish the “traitors.” This campaign resulted in many Hmong fleeing Laos and immigrating to other countries, including the United States, as refugees. Although the war ended over 40 years ago, the mistrusts and mutual animosities between the Pro-U.S. Hmong and the Pro-Pathet Lao Hmong as well as the current Lao government still exist. Thus, my wanting to conduct extensive research in Laos was seen as very risky and dangerous. This fear was heightened considering that my father was one of the soldiers who sided with the U.S. and fought against the Path Lao for over a decade before fleeing the country.
Overall, my experience was positive. For example, I got meet cousins and relatives that I never knew (many stated that they were aware of my parents and older siblings but never knew I even existed). I got to experienced and learn about their livelihood strategies and how they compensate and adopt to changing ways of life. Furthermore, I got to go back and live in a country that I left as a two-year old refugee. These experiences are further elaborated upon in the dissertation.
Do you know what kind of work you will do next?
I was offered and accepted a full-time permanent position with the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA – NRCS) as a Resource Conservationist. I am likely to stay with this position for a couple years to gain additional experience working with landowners and land operators on ecosystem and resource management. My long-term career plan is not set but I could see myself either continuing my career with the federal government (either with the NRCS or another federal agency), as a faculty member at a college or university, or working for an international biodiversity and resource conservation organization such as the World Wildlife Fund.
Why is it important to have geographers out in the world?
The world is changing. Complex environmental and social issues are emerging as the human population continues to increase in conjunction with decreasing natural resources availability. We need a discipline that seeks to find viable solutions or alternatives to many of these environmental concerns while caring for the humans who are dependent on the resources. Other disciplines have similar agendas, but many are either too natural resource-focused with little regards to the human population or too human-centered with little regards to natural resources. Geographers, especially people-environment geographers, are uniquely positioned incorporate both sides in order to conduct ground-breaking research and find solutions to many of these issues.