After the Refugees book I embarked on another long term story. Again, just like 'Water in Sahel' or 'Refugees', it would be a story on the sense of belonging, of roots, of land, of origins, of refuge. The idea was to find out if people living in the relative isolation of mountaineous areas developed a strong cultural identity, or have people with a strong cultural identity found a refuge in the higher valleys? The project would take me to The Hmongs in Laos, The Mams in Guatemala and the Svans in Georgia.
Hmongs in Laos
'DEALS WITH THE SPIRITS'. The ethnic minorities from the North and the center of Laos practice slash and burn agriculture. This method seems to be particularly agressive to the environment. In a cycle of six to ten years, patches of forest are burned down to plant rice, corn, and opium since the last 200 years. The Hmong have an extremely rich animist religion, and they have successfully been resisting outside influences on their culture for the last fifty years. Recently, in the area of Luang Prabang, just promoted as World Heritage City by UNESCO and touristic showcase for the government, pressure from the authorities to stop slash and burn agriculture has increased. One of the main targets is the village of Kassia, where some 50 families are living.
Mams in Guatemala
'THE DANCE OF THE SUBDUED'. The Mam indians from the high plateaux in Guatemala have been under cultural pressure from the Ladino population since 500 years. They managed to live with imported religions by adapting them to their traditional environment, and were able to protect their maya beliefs through secrecy and a very strong sense of community. The guerilla war of the eighties and the military repression that went along with it, the unfair distribution of the land, keep challenging their cultural integrity. Many are forced to flee towards lower lands, to fill the ranks of slum dwellers in the capital city, to seek refuge in Mexico or to emigrate to the US. The majority keeps scraping a living on the steep slopes of the mountains, tries to maintain the customs of their ancestors.
Svans in Georgia
'LUNCH WITH THE DEAD'. Ushguli is the last village in the valley leading to the highest peak of the Caucasus, Mount Skhara. Some 50 families live there at an altitude of 2700-2500m, cut off from the rest of the world during a couple of months by winter snow. It is a very old settlement, dating back to the 7th century. In the 10th and 11th century, the inhabitants, recently converted to the Orthodox religion, defended themselves against “animist” invaders by building 20 m high towers, which are considered World Heritage by UNESCO. In the 12th century, Queen Tamara, in her successful effort to define the actual borders of Georgia, had a summer castle built on top of a hill in Ushguli. Today this Svan community lives in near autarcy, relying on cattle and dairy products to cope with the economic decay which hit Georgia after it became independent of the USSR.