Archive for the ‘Altijd verder’ Category

Being a dedicated marathon runner, sport in general and running in particular have helped me to establish contact with people in most of the places where I have been, and to bring me to many of these places. My work in 2010 and 2011 as a coach of a group of distance athletes in Laos (and an Australian runner and vet that joined the squad there) have ended by bringing me to Darwin, in Australia. But the true is that at this moment I live here, where I work as a development officer of Athletics Northern Territory. Of course Australia is not what many would denominate a ‘developing country’ and the situation here is obviously very different to that where I have worked in the past. But given the relative low amount of people doing athletics in the territory, and the isolation in which many rural communities live in this part of the world, this job has many similitude with previous jobs in the development sector. And at the end of the day, sport is one of the most powerful tools to boost personal and community development, isn’t it?

The Athletics NT Development Program for which I am responsible aims to provide athletes from entry level to the age of 23 with the tools they need to advance their outcomes and realize their aspirations in athletics. Two key pillars form the backbone of Athletics NT’s Programme:

  • Athletics Play and Active After School Activities designed to teach of the skills of running, jumping and throwing through organised play and game based experiences and aiming to bring excitement into playing athletics.
  • The Development and Academy Squads, which are designed to recognise and select athletes with talent and potential in the sport and to support them and their coaches in their future development in athletics by organizing activities that include specific coaching clinics, workshops, training camps and assistance in the participation at Athletic events such as Australian All School Track & Field Championships, Australian Junior Track & Field Championships and Australian under 23 Track & Field Championships.

Sounds professional, doesn’t it? Well, my real deep motivation is to introduce kids in the territory to athletics, that they enjoy it and that it contributes positively to their personal development. The Northern Territory is huge (1,349,129 square kilometers), and getting to the different sites with associated clubs or where to implement this program is not easy. The vibrant capital city of Darwin, which has been hand-picked by Lonely Planet as one of the world’s top 10 cities to visit in 2012 is closer to Asia than any other capital city in Australia. And, Alice Springs, which has two club in the association, is on a 2 hour plane ride from Darwin. Other places that I will have to visit are Kathrine (just three hours ride from home) and Arnhem Land, which is located in the north-eastern corner of the territory and is around 500 km from Darwin. During my time in Peru, some young runners I trained with gave the nickname of ‘padrino rapido’ (fast godfather). But given the legend of the Flying Dutchman (a ghost ship that can never make port) looks like the story of my life (I also seem doomed to sail over the oceans forever) and that I may need to fly to do part of my job, I think soon I will get the nickname of flying coach-man (the name of Arnhem Land comes from how the explorer Matthew Flinders named the region after the Dutch ship Arnhem).  By the way, and three weeks already after the Marathon of Amsterdam, I do not feel rapido or flying at all!!

Alex and Noel after finishing the Amsterdam marathon

Alex and Noel after finishing the Amsterdam marathon (picture by Erki.nl)


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Last week I traveled with 8 athletes from the Laos athletics team to the King’s Cup Thailand National Track and Field Championships in Bangkok. I was accompanied by Emma Zalcman and Chalensouk AOUDOMPHANH (Jiab). Emma moved to Laos to volunteer as a veterinarian for ElefantAsia, a French NGO which offers free veterinary care to domesticated elephants.  Keen to continue training (when she wasn’t busy with elephants!), Emma quickly became involved in athletics in Lao PDR; joining the Laos Middle Distance squad shortly after her arrival.  Jiab is currently the sprinters’ coach of the squad and, among other events, has also represented Lao PDR at the Olympic Games of Athens.  The championships were at Thammasat University and against strong teams from over 8 countries within Asia.

19 year old, Souksavanh Makivan posted a personal best time of 5.07 minutes in the Junior Women’s 1500m to win bronze. She then went on to win the 5000 meters in a time of 20.01 minutes. Souksavanh competed in the 2009 SEA Games and will compete in the ASEAN Student Games in Chang Mai next December as well at the Angkor 10Km, also in December. Two other athletes made the Junior Womens 800m final. Competing against athletes far older than them, Koud Keo  and Toly (both 15 years old) posted personal best times (2.30.01 and 2.34.10 respectively) to earn their place in the final. Both athletes made significant improvements on their former personal bests which were run at the SEA Games in 2009. Laos was also well represented in the junior mens events. After a too fast start (9.45 after 3000 meters) Sysavath finished 7th in the 5000 m with a time of 17.30 minutes. Bountom Glorkham completed his third the 1500m ever in 4.35 minutes.

The athletes of the middle and long distance squad are now training hard to prepare for the Angkor 10 Km to be held on December 5th in Cambodia.  So far Joma BakeryAthltetics Essendon (Athletics club from Melbourne) and The Lao Elephants (Australian rules football club) have already made donations to cover the costs of 4 athletes to participate in Ankor. Saeng of Bluegrass Design Group has kindly supported us making a fantastic folder to promote this initiative. We are still looking for sponsorship to cover travel costs of other 4 athletes.  Interested parties can contact me at meerisimo@hotmail.com

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De Hemel heeft nu balken

Een schaduw voegt zich bij mijn tempo,
heeft krullend haar en grote lach,
hij ziet me lopen in mijn eentje,
en hij wilt delen de blauwe baan.

Ik vraag aan Tonnie wat ik ermee moet,
hij was met anderen die niet meer zijn.
Ga met hem hollen en leer hem kennen,
en als ik dat doe voelt het heel fijn.

Nu sprint hij weg op naar de hemel,
een blauwe hemel zoals zijn baan,
daar blijft hij lopen tussen de engelen,
maar hier op aarde we missen Jan.

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Fair Trade Laos was established by a small group of motivated business people and NGOs that see the potential of Fair Trade to improve producers’ and farmers’ lives and at the same time offer customers a high quality product.

Since many of the smaller producers are not able to afford the costs of international certification, the group considers developing a Laos Fair Trade Certificate, which will follow the criteria of the two main Fair Trade certification organisations. That way, the international certification could be obtained at a later stage.

The group is still being developed, but it helps already plenty of small producers and poor Laotians to increase their opportunities in life and feeds western houses with quality products.

Find here more information about each of its members or follow here the blog for recent news from members Fair Trade Laos.


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Lao Ngam is one of the 8 districts of Saravane Province, a region in South Laos that borders with Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, Champasak and Sekong Provinces to the south and Savannaketh province to the north. With sticky and red soils and average temperatures of 13 and 28 C degrees, the plateau of Lao Ngam district is a suitable area for cultivation and livestock. Current economic crops are coffee, cassava, cardamon, pepper, peanuts, sweet potato, maize, fruit trees and beans. According to a publication of the Provincial Tourism Department, the region is also suitable for food processing and raising livestock.  Yet I (Wageningen alumni 1) found difficult to find enterprises that process any of these crops. Only the small shops selling papaya salad and fresh coconuts that I encountered during my first long run along road 20 seem to be 100% Lao business. Dreaming of  gold medals and national records,  I use the signs of companies on this road as landmarks that help me to keep the pace and increase kilometers to my dreams; most of the signs are written in no Lao language.

One day later a  single study tour (this one by car) from Lao Ngam towards the city of Salavan with some colleagues  (Wageningen alumni 2 and 3)  who collaborate with the Green Earth Center of Village Focus International will confirm these first impressions. The signs  belong to one Vietnamese cassava powder factory, one Chinese Hydro-power Corporation, one Japanese enterprise, a Thai maize processing plant. Later on another Chinese sign, this one of a furniture factory. Thirty km from Lao Ngam we encountered the first Western investment: a Dutch piglet raising farm run by a Dutch expert (Wageningen alumni 4) which seems to have a strong commitment with improving the livelihood of poor farmers. The farm breeds and sells piglets to local farmers for 300,000 kip (approx. 35 US$; price for piglets of 7 Kg). The farm also provides fodder and free veterinary advise to farmers. Once the pigs are around 120 Kg farmers bring the pigs to a slaughterhouse in Pakse for a price of 14,500 kip/Kg; this is around 200 US$/pig.

Growing mushrooms seems less “profitable” for farmers than keeping pigs. The district agricultural and forestry office sells micellized bags at the price of 2000 kip/bag (0,23 US$). After 4 months farmers can collect 800 grams of mushrooms per set. Farmers sell mushrooms for a price of 15,000 kip/Kg in the local market. In other words, one bag of mushrooms gives around 12,000 kip (1,4 US$). A more lucrative type of mushroom and cinnamon are germinated at the same station of DAFO, but most of the processing is done in Japan, where these are sold for medicinal purposes. A similar story can be told for the cassava, and for the maize, and the electricity: made in Laos, proce$$ed and $old overseas. Meanwhile, Laos continues to import most of the processed products one can buy in a supermarket in major cities like Pakse and Salavan. And with the exception of Beer Lao, some coffee, the exceptional products of Xao Ban (village in English) and few others, supermarkets in Vientiane do not look like much different. Running back to the Center I like to think that there is room for skill development in transfer of agricultural technology and in the development of (Laotian) agro-processing industries. The Green Earth Center, which is located in Lao Ngam District Center (click here for a map of the location), may well play a role in this, since it aims to become a center of agricultural training, research, production and marketing to directly support local farmers and government officials.

Mr. Kesone, manager of this Center wishes that “the Center becomes a full time venue for knowledge development and sharing about sustainable agriculture and sound rural development, not only for and by (I)NGOs but also by and for entrepreneurs, government agencies and rural citizens”. Therefore, ideas are currently generated and collected to ensure that the Center meets the needs of the interested groups and users and has an added value for sustainable rural development in (South) Lao PDR (for a note of this concept please click here). And it seems that the first steps have been done in the right direction. Mrs. Nut (Wageningen alumni 2), a Thai social entrepreneur who founded and manages Xao Ban products will collaborate with training and processing of some fruit crops in the Green Earth Center. Likewise, Mr. Jacob, (Wageningen alumni 4) manager of the piglet farm introduced above showed interest to collaborate with the production of pig fodder.

Beyond the development of agribusinesses, the Green Earth Center seems to have potential in another meant to be cash industry: tourism. In fact, 20km short of Lao Ngam, the ten-meter-high Tad Lo Waterfall has lead to a steady stream of foreign visitors. Yet, Green Earth Center may be a better destination for visitors looking for the rural and farming Laos. Or for national and international agricultural and international development students who may find in the Green Earth Center what a Dutch expert (alumni 5) described as a “one-stop demonstration / shop for customized sustainable solutions”. This idea was shared by an Australian livestock researcher while drinking coffee in the French style Sinouk cafe in Pakse (sinouk@laopdr.com). By the way, the more exquisite foreign visitors may better stay in the very attractive tourist resort that Sinouk Café Lao is building in its organic coffee plantation on the Bolaven Plateau. Of course, they will always be welcome to enjoy fishing in one of the two ponds at the Green Earth Center!

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Despite the hills, the heat and the four flat tires (one of them mine when I was about to make Elco tired going up hill…),  and one small accident (also me when I was playing to be a cameraman interviewing Team Captain Wil), Team Dai reached Phonsavanh, capital of  Xieng Khuang Province, which is famous for its Plain of Jars. With our effort and the enormous generosity from over 130 private donors from all over the world, and about $5,000 raised by the raffle held in Vientiane, this year Team Dai has raised US$17,375. Team Dai is so grateful for the generosity and support of all of them, but I want to thank specially to the 9 friends from Holland who supported this challenge. Thank you so much!!

Click here to see a slide show of images from the 2010 Team Dai Challenge! (thanks to Peggy on our great support crew). For a really nice written description of our adventure check out http://www.dentsadventure.com written by teammate Sharon aka “the fresh”.

The total amount will be split evenly and distributed to the three organisations described previously. This is a great result and the three organizations were extremely grateful at a small presentation ceremony at the COPE center on Friday March 12th.  We’ve asked for a brief report with pictures of how the money is used, and will send this to all donors too.

Team Dai su su,

Alex aka “the bull”

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The day had started really well; a ride of 65 km on my bike and chocolate croissants with my housemates in the garden, as many other Saturdays. Hoping to find my mailbox full of messages from people who want to support the Team Dai Challenge 2010, and still with the cup of coffee in my hands, I log in my hotmail and find this message:

“Dear Alex,

This is to inform you that I am sorry to say that I had been asked to inform you that your initially planned PES in Costa Rica paper has now been dropped out of the agenda due to a political decision which is out of my control. Hence I would like to ask you for an apology for the change. We will find opportunities for you to present it to us sometime next occasion. However, pls be informed that you are still invited to the workshop as a general participant but not as resource person.

Hope you understand my situation and the change.

Sincerely yours,”

The message relates to a presentation I was supposed to give at an upcoming NLMA Land and Environment workshop at the end of February. Unfortunately, I have been informed I cannot. May be someone was afraid of what I wanted to say. I imagine this person is not Laotian. The order must come from a person elsewhere, may be someone who  flies in business class, eager to demonstrate me who has more power after a past discussion in which we disagreed on the approach.  I wonder whether this person will also order that I wear a muzzle during the workshop so that I do not make “difficult” questions. Well, for the time being I will see this experience as the best professional complement I ever got.

I recall one phrase in a film that I saw long ago:

“you will steal my land, you will steal my words, but you will never get my soul”.

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