Understanding how people interact within the Nakai Nam Theun 2 ecosystem is essential for understanding the ecology of the watershed. All non-forest habitats are maintained by the activities of the watershed residents; people and biodiversity are inextricably linked within Nakai Nam Theun. Therefore conservation and development activities within the NPA must consider the “bio-cultural diversity” of the area.
About 6,900 humans presently live in NNT clustered in 31 villages; a density of about 1.95 persons/km2. More than 28 languages from four major linguistic groups have been identified in the watershed, three of which have only been described by ethnographers since 1996, and are endemic to Nakai Nam Theun. Linguistic and anthropological evidence suggests that NNT is one of the longest continually inhabited upland areas of Laos or Vietnam. In addition to its ethnic diversity, Nakai Nam Theun is also distinctive in that Lao, the national language originating from the country’s dominant ethnic group Lao Loum, is not the first language of NNT’s residents. The four major ethnic groups that reside in or use the area are:
- Vietic (a branch of the Austroasiatic or Mon-Khmer ethnic groups) with at least 12 relatively small sub- groups of languages.
- Brou (Western Katuic branch of Austroasiatic), also known as Soô or Makong.
- Tai-Kadai, including the Sek, an archaic language that differs form the rest of the Tai groups.
- Hmong (members of the Hmong-Mien ethno-linguistic family), recent arrivals from the north, inhabiting the peripheral impact zone but not the NT2 Watershed Area.
All villagers have a strong sense of belonging to the region and attachment to the resources available in the forests and rivers. In addition, there are demarcations of territory according to the range of influence of territorial spirits (phi meuang).
Although the residents of Nakai Nam Theun have a high ethnic diversity, there are many similarities in village livelihood systems. Whilst most villagers live in geographically contained villages surrounded by forest, there exists a traditional network of information sharing. Houses are generally constructed 1-3 meters above the ground on timber posts, with woven bamboo or hand-sawn timber planks for walls. Houses are grouped together inside a clear village boundary and agricultural fields surround each village. Water buffalo are the most highly valued domestic animals, and were traditionally used for draft work but have been replaced by motorised hand tractors. Buffalo are still used as a part of ritual sacrifices e.g. wedding and funeral ceremonies, and to sell to purchase rice in years when harvests are poor. Other domestic animals commonly kept are cattle, pigs and chickens and dogs are used for protection and hunting. Villagers rely on a number of agriculture practices including hunting and gathering of forest and stream products. Most protein does not come from domestic livestock but is sourced from stream fish and aquatic invertebrates. The majority of calories in the typical diet come from the products of upland shifting cultivation. Upland systems and cultivation intensities vary, mainly with ethnicity. The staple crop is glutinous rice, which is supplemented with cassava, corn, squash and chilli. In years of low rice harvest, villagers trade non-timber forest products, wildlife, livestock and labor for rice, clothing and some household goods. Many villages in the NPA face exploitation by groups from outside, primarily traders and poachers on the Lao-Vietnam border, upland farmers from the peripheral impact zone such as the Hmong and Tai to the northeast, poaching activity from the east and the north, and groups from the lowlands and Nakai Plateau exploiting natural resources in the catchment.