Esteemed American Scholar Visits Laos


Special to the Vientiane Times

Esteemed American Scholar Visits Laos on America’s 241st Birthday

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Ban Hat Hien Luang Prabang Province

Dr. Downing A. Thomas, Associate Provost and Dean of International Programs at a leading university in the United States, visited the JungleVine® Research Retreat here on America’s 241st birthday and learned about research that is under way on the environmental and economic uses of the Lao vine known as Keuapiad.

The vine has been used by Khmu villagers in northern Laos for thousands of years for a number of purposes including producing the fiber used by Khmu women to weave versatile carry-all bags that are now being marketed internationally by the Lao JungleVine® Development Co LTD.  The JungleVine® Research Retreat is the site of research into other uses for the vine, which thrives naturally throughout Luang Prabang, Bokeo, Luang Namtha, Oudomxai and Phongsaly as well as other northern provinces.

Dean Thomas is a prominent international scholar at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, which is a leading education and research academic institution in the United States. He stopped in Laos on his way back to Iowa following a meeting in Eastern Europe with the President of Kosovo. The Retreat is located in rural Luang Prabang, which is the international headquarters of the Lao JungleVine® Development Co LTD.

Dean Thomas spent several hours at the Research Retreat learning about life in the isolated jungle and experiments being conducted there on Keuapiad, which is called “JungleVine®” around the world.

“We are observing the value of JungleVine® for livestock food, soil enrichment, erosion control, bio-diversity and its effects on other plants,” said Bill Newbrough, an American philanthropist who was instrumental in the development of the research center and the marketing of the JungleVine® bags that is generating income to improve the living conditions of the Khmu villagers.

The vine also provides natural shelter for hundreds of free-range chickens at the Research Retreat that will eventually be sold to the Chinese to feed workers on the new railroad, according to Thavone Chitanon, manager of the Research Retreat and a partner in Lao JungleVine®. Chitanon lives at the Research Retreat, owns and operates the chicken business and is a student at Souphanouvong University.

Dean Thomas noted there is “a strong and lengthy connection between Iowa and Laos.” He said thousands of Lao were welcomed to Iowa in the 1970s, where many second and third generation families are raising families and have become integrated into Iowa culture and society.

“Interestingly, many maintain close ties with their Lao families and friends here even after 40 years, visiting Laos frequently for tourism,” said Newbrough, who is a consultant to the Lao JungleVine® Development Co LTD.  “A surprising number of second generation Lao-Iowans are planning to retire here.”

Lao JungleVine® Development has worked for more than 10 years with villages primarily in Beng District Oudomxai Province to acquire the now world-famous Khmu/Lao NatureBag or JungleBag® from artisans in remote mountainside areas. Its work is subsidized and otherwise supported by an American public charity known as the JungeVine® Foundation, which markets products to retail shops in Europe, Australia, Korea, Japan, Iceland as well as Asia and North America.

“Our work is preserving the ancient craft of making the Khmu bag to provide income to poor villages while giving them alternatives to working in dangerous banana plantations and other commercial agriculture endeavors that have emerged in recent years,” said Anousith Phonethasith, managing director of the Lao JungleVine® company. “We have developed other products that are being introduced globally utilizing the environmentally-friendly characteristics of what we think is the earth’s best natural fiber.”

“It was great to see first-hand how much potential there is here in Laos,” said Dean Thomas, who said he hopes to return to Laos with his wife, a native of Thailand, for an extended Laotian holiday.