Members' Voices: Tara Gujadhur, Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC)


The Mountain Partnership - the United Nations alliance dedicated to mountains - is all about working together for sustainable mountain development around the world. Our vast and diverse membership counts over 500 members to date, across governments, intergovernmental organizations and civil society. In this latest Members' Voices feature, the Mountain Partnership Secretariat interviews Tara Gujadhur, Co-Director of the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Tell us about the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, what is your mission?

The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) is a cultural heritage organization and museum in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, in northern Lao People's Democratic Republic. We are dedicated to celebrating and promoting the traditional arts and lifestyles of the country’s ethnic minority groups, which are primarily highland peoples.

The Lao People's Democratic Republic is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in this part of the world, with 47 percent of the population made up of many different ethnic minority groups – the majority Tai Lao people are 53 percent of the population. The Tai Lao are traditionally lowland, rice paddy farming people, whereas the uplands have been settled and farmed by groups like the Kmhmu, Hmong, Akha, Katu, and Tai Daeng people. Officially, there are 50 ethnic groups in the Lao People's Democratic Republic recognized by the government, but anthropologists have documented more than 100 distinct groups. The ethnic minority peoples are primarily concentrated in the mountainous north and east of the country, and Luang Prabang, where TAEC is based, is the heart of the north.

My Co-Director, Thongkhoun Soutthivilay, and I started TAEC around 2005 when realizing how little accessible and accurate information about the upland ethnic groups was available to tourists as well as to locals. In 2006, we secured a location for the museum, and that spurred us to fundraise and start building a collection, researching and working with ethnic communities, and curating the permanent exhibitions. Our collection includes an array of material culture, ranging from clothing and textiles, to farming and craft tools, spiritual implements and traditional arts. We also have an extensive collection of photos, videos and audio recordings, providing documentation of intangible cultural practices. The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre opened its doors on 5 July 2007.

Our mission is “to promote pride and appreciation for the cultures and knowledge of Laos’ diverse peoples, support ethnic communities to safeguard their tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and promote their sustainable livelihood development.” Our work is based on promoting the skills and cultural resources of the upland peoples of Laos.

Why do mountains matter to you personally and to the Lao People's Democratic Republic?

The Lao People's Democratic Republic can be defined as a mountainous country – this is why we have so much cultural diversity, different geographical regions, and highland lifestyles. Historically, this landscape has attracted many ethnic minorities to the Lao People's Democratic Republic, seeking to escape state control, engage in trade, or participate in opium production during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nowadays, investment from neighbouring countries has focused on rubber plantations, cassava and hydropower dams. The mountains of the Lao People's Democratic Republic and their communities are incredibly vibrant and culturally and biologically diverse, but have also been difficult to put into the traditional mould of “development” and have been seen as more of a barrier to the country’s prosperity.

I’ve spent some of the best times I’ve had in highland communities, learning about cultural traditions, changes in their lifestyles, issues with development, and discussing how we can work together. The ingenuity and industriousness of upland peoples is unparalleled.

What are some examples of projects the TAEC is working on to promote sustainable mountain development?

A key project we’re working on is Intellectual Property (IP) Rights for Traditional Artisans. An ethnic minority community in Phongsaly Province, the Oma, had their traditional designs misappropriated by an Italian fashion company. This helped us understand how artisan communities have few rights and protection over their traditional knowledge and cultural expressions. We’ve become more active in the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative® and were able to develop a model here in the Lao People's Democratic Republic with the Oma to better protect their designs. We’re hoping that this model can be expanded to more communities in Laos and globally, so that artisan communities, especially those in highland areas, can continue to benefit from their own intellectual property. We have a resource page that provides information about the model and highlights the importance of protecting traditional cultural expressions.

Promoting supplementary livelihoods based on handicrafts has been an important part of TAEC’s work since we started. Rural ethnic minority women, primarily in the uplands, are the poorest population in Laos. Many of them have low levels of formal education, but very high levels of craft skills. We help them turn those skills into products that can be sold in our TAEC shops, to earn income. We did some informal surveys with our women producers, and we found that they invested the money in their families – in better food, education for their children, and healthcare. To us, this is a priority – as a women-led business, we personally want to see women having control over some part of their livelihood, and handicrafts seems to be a good opportunity.

What tangible impact has TAEC had on communities?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, TAEC worked with around 600 artisans in 33 villages in 13 provinces. In 2019, our artisans earned a total of USD 128 000 from their handicraft sales. This obviously dropped during the pandemic, but TAEC continued to sell products online, and continued to purchase small amounts from artisans to keep some cash flowing. The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre is now actively working with all our artisan communities now that tourism is returning, and we hope that incomes will recover and continue to grow and benefit upland women.

The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre was the first entity in the Lao People's Democratic Republic to become a Mountain Partnership member. What does TAEC hope to gain from being part of this alliance?   

Working with mountain communities comes with its own challenges and opportunities. We’re happy to be part of an alliance of others working in this same field and appreciate the breadth of the work the Mountain Partnership undertakes. We’re particularly keen on the Fashion for Fragile Ecosystems approach given our work with traditional artisans and IP. We think it could be wonderful to work with designers who want to honour and highlight the work of upland artisan craftswomen.

Read the full story on Exposure

Photo by Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre

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