If you ask Jonas Novén, the avid mountain-climbing Swede who heads up our operations in Laos, what he likes best about his job, he doesn’t hesitate.
“We are lucky to work with excellent local teams, and the time I get to spend with Laotians in the office, the field, or during celebrations – the Lao are masters of celebration – is always uplifting,” Jonas remarks.
In one form or another, NIRAS has been present in Laos since 1989, with an office since 1991, and this continued local presence has enabled Jonas and his team to build a strong reputation and earn respect.
“We’ve worked with a whole generation of Laotian officials in agriculture, forestry and natural resource management and watched as many have gone from their early days in office to leadership positions. We are seen as real friends and partners. The importance of that should not be underestimated.”
Getting to know Lao culture
Jonas’s ties to Asia go back over two decades. As part of his Master’s degree in Land Surveying and Mapping from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, he wrote his thesis on upland land use planning in Vietnam. This triggered an interest in rural development and land management issues as he discovered there was a big disconnect between the official picture and realities on the ground.
Fresh from graduation, he started working as a geographic information system (GIS) consultant for the provincial survey department in his hometown of Östersund in Northern Sweden. From there he headed to Norway to work for a mapping company until he got the opportunity to go to Laos as part of Sida’s programme for junior professionals.
“For three years, I worked with land use planning and allocation with SCC Natura – which later became part of NIRAS. It was extremely rewarding to learn how things really work (or don’t) in the field,” he recalls. “I was lucky enough to spend substantial time in remote villages as access was difficult at that time and daytrips were not possible. From those many overnights, I learned a lot about different ethnic minorities and their various ways of life.”
NIRAS is a youthful organisation with a lot of positive energy and attitude. It allows for personal development and there’s always room to discuss different ideas. I also believe there’s a sense of pride working for NIRAS, there’s unity in working for the common good.
A sustained local presence and diverse portfolio
In 2003, Jonas returned to Europe and worked at HQ in Sweden on a variety of projects, including a three-year stint in Vietnam, before returning to Vientiane in 2012 where he took up the position as Country Director. Seven years later, he’s proud of the reputation NIRAS has built.
“Our continued presence is highly appreciated as we’re not just a ‘fly-in, fly-out’ outfit. We’re respected because we’ve been able to maintain a good size portfolio despite that the Nordic donors left long ago, we have diversified in terms of clients. Today we collaborate with SDC, AFD and KfW on long-term projects, and that I believe we have a good reputation among experts, donors and the government,” he explains.
“We’ve been here a long time. Just look at our driver and fixer, Mr Bounlert. He has worked with us since 1995 and seen all our projects for the past 25 years. He has a great institutional memory, not to mention all the stories he can tell!”
In addition to leading a team of three, Jonas is hands on in a number of projects. One of the more prominent of these is the SDC-funded The Agro Biodiversity Initiative – TABI – launched back in 2009.
“Due to its relative isolation in the past, low population density, and variety of landscapes and people, Laos is extremely biodiverse. Most people rely on their natural environment for their livelihoods and TABI aims to promote and protect the unique species and products found here, both at a landscape level and through developing business opportunities for products. Laos cannot compete with its neighbours on industrial scale crops such as rice so it’s important to develop its potential for high quality niche markets.”
Satellite imagery has shown that the project has been able to transform upland areas into more sustainable use through managed shifting cultivation done in zones as compared to individually dispersed plots as in the past. This has significantly reduced incidents of forest fires and boundary disputes and made cultivation more rational (sharing access rods, fences, etc).
Most recently TABI has been involved with the piloting of communal land tenure for the different zones in upland villages to increase tenure security as part of TABI. His fluency in Lao, understanding on local culture, and love of trekking serve him well in this field work.
If you’re visiting Vientiane, be sure to stop by the office on Nongbone road. If you’re in luck, there might be some Lao celebration you can join, but if not, our local team will surely make you feel welcome.