Human Biology of Poverty Symposium

We just finished a symposium on “the human biology of poverty,” held at ISCTE-IUL in Lisbon, and sponsored by the The Society for the Study of Human Biology. It really was a great meeting, full of important research on the effects of various forms of deprivation on biology and health in different populations. The complete program can be found here.

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The Biology of Forced Displacement

“Seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”  – UNHCR

We crossed the Mekong to get to Thailand at night, so no one would see us. We had always lived in the mountains (of northern Laos), so we did not know how to swim. When we came to the river, we used anything to help us float – bamboo, bicycle tubes. But at night, it is easy to get lost. Someone in our group said: ‘Remember, if you get lost when you’re going down the river (with the current), don’t panic. Thailand is on your right.’ ”

 

 

Every refugee has a story. The one above was told to me by a Hmong man I met in French Guiana in 2001. I went to learn about the experiences of the people there and how they had adjusted to being resettled half a world away, from Southeast Asia to a French ‘overseas department’ in Amazonia. They were actually doing quite well at the time, living as independent farmers who had been given land by the government years earlier.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

They also retained a good degree of cultural continuity. While most are fluent in French, the majority of the 2,000+ Hmong in the country lived in rural, semi-isolated, ethnically homogenous villages. This gave them a buffer of sorts, allowing them to acculturate on their own terms. As they often put it, they were “free to be their own boss,” free to be Hmong, and most said they were happy with life in French Guiana. This combination of traits – economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, mostly content, living in a rural overseas department – is not the typical refugee story. In fact, because of that relative uniqueness, the French Guiana Hmong have drawn attention from media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times.

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Civilians, Refugees, and the 2nd Indochina War in Laos

In Houa Phanh and Xieng Khouang provinces, the war (in Laos) has reached into every home and forced every individual, down to the very youngest, to make the agonizing choice of flight or death.” (Yang 1993: 104)

Those who suffered the most from the escalating conflict were populations living in the east of the country: overwhelmingly highland minorities, Lao Thoeng and particularly Lao Sung (Mien as well as Hmong), but also upland Tai, the Phuan of Xiang Khouang and the Phu-Tai of east central Laos.” (Stuart-Fox, 1997: 139)

Military Region II (northeastern Laos) bore the brunt of the war for almost fifteen years. Nearly 80% of the refugee population in Laos originated in MR II, including the refugees on the Vientiane Plaine. Almost the entire population of Houa Phan (Sam Neua) and Xieng Khouang Provinces were gradually forced south into the Long Tieng, Ban Xon, Muang Cha crescent.” (USAID, 1976: 210)

 

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

 

A consistent feature of war is the harming of civilian lives. The extent of harm is not always easy to ascertain, but is sometimes quantified in the number of “excess deaths” that occur during a war. For example, Hagopian et al (2013) surveyed two thousand randomly selected households throughout Iraq, interviewing residents about their family members before and during the US-led invasion and occupation. They estimated that from March 2003-2011 approximately 405,000 deaths occurred as a result of the war, mostly from violence.

However, such studies always have limitations – recall bias, survivor bias (the dead cannot be interviewed), and logistics in surveying high violence areas – meaning that mortality estimates will never be perfect, and Hagopian et al. gave a range around their figure (a 95% uncertainty interval of 48,000 to 751,000 excess deaths). Whatever the exact number, which we will probably never know, we can still be confident that mortality rates increased during the war years.  

The same challenges apply to all wars, including one that I have been interested in for a while – the Second Indochina War in LaosThe Australian historian Martin Stuart-Fox wrote that: “loss of life can only be guessed at, but 200,000 dead and twice that number of wounded would be a conservative estimate” (1997: 144). Mortality estimates for Laos are further complicated by the fact that it was one the least developed countries in Asia at the time of the war, likely with unreliable census data and other record keeping (though, for those who are interested, see the 1961 Joel Halpern “Laos Project Papers” from UCLA, which contain demographic and health statistics).

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Infant Mortality Rates, War & Laos

I finished my dissertation on how the war in Laos was correlated to the physical growth of Hmong refugees in 2004. The general idea was that early stressors, particularly prenatally and in infancy, can have long-term impacts on growth and health. The model I was working with came largely from David Barker’s (and others’) ‘fetal origins hypothesis,’ based on evidence that low birth-weight infants tended to grow up to have higher rates of things like type 2 diabates, coronary heart disease, hypertension, etc. A classmate in graduate school, Stephanie Rutledge, introduced me to Barker’s work and told me that I’d find it really enlightening. I did. Sadly, Barker passed away earlier this year, but his work helped spawn a new direction in research. 

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Bombing of Laos, Animated

The organization Legacies of War shared this animated video on the impacts of U.S. bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. I thought the filmmaker, Corey Sheldon, put together a very attractive and informative video, although the history is perhaps understandably simplified. Today, the remnants of unexploded bombs are still a problem in Laos, decades after the war has ended, so I think projects like this one are helpful in raising awareness, particularly in the United States.  <div style=”text-align:center”>

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Related posts

The Lingering Effects of the War in Laos 

Laos: The Not So Secret War 

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One Planet. One Species. Homo sapiens.

“One planet, one experiment.”
………………..— Edward O. Wilson. 1992. The Diversity of Life.

Hadzabe men (wikimedia commons)

The BBC has compiled what looks to be an absolutely visually stunning television series, titled ‘Human Planet.’  The footage is said to contain video from 80 different locations, highlighting the relationship of humans to various ecological conditions.1 The description from the website:

Uniquely in the animal kingdom, humans have managed to adapt and thrive in every environment on Earth. Each episode takes you to the extremes of our planet: the arctic, mountains, oceans, jungles, grasslands, deserts, rivers and even the urban jungle. Here you will meet people who survive by building complex, exciting and often mutually beneficial relationships with their animal neighbours and the hostile elements of the natural world.”

Have a look for yourself at the preview:

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Killer Ghosts & Broken Hearts: The Mystery of Sudden Unexplained Death in Sleep in Asian Men

One of the strengths of a biocultural perspective in anthropology is its broad approach to understanding human biology and health (Wiley and Allen 2008). Such a framework seems particularly appropriate when looking at the fascinating phenomenon of SUDS (Sudden Unexplained Death During Sleep). Though SUDS first appeared in the medical literature 1917 in the Philippines, where it is referred to as ‘bangungut’ (Guazon 1917), it was largely forgotten until the late 1970s when it regained notoriety as an important cause of mortality among Southeast Asian refugees in the United States, particularly among young men (Baron et al 1983).

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