In an exclusive interview with the Laotian Times, John Pearson, outgoing British Ambassador to Laos, reflects on his four-year diplomatic mission in Laos, sharing insights into his overall experience and shedding light on the environmental challenges faced by the country.
As a diplomat, British Ambassador John Pearson believes in disrupting the status quo at times to improve a situation, and that may involve questioning others instead of just being ‘polite’.
Laotian Times met the Ambassador in the cool interior of the British Embassy on a scorching summer day, but the ambassador welcomed us in his finest suit, offering refreshments before the interview.
Starting off, Mr. Pearson was keen to express how much he enjoyed his time in Laos and was happy to positively impact the progress of the country and help strengthen ties with the United Kingdom.
“Getting appointed as an ambassador in any country is a real privilege as it means that you’re representing your government in that country. This doesn’t happen to many people, so I’m really lucky that it happened to me, and I’ll always remember the experience that followed.”
He was most proud of the sustainability work that the Embassy has been able to support during his time in the country. In fact, the UK Embassy has been the first diplomatic mission in the country to go electric – acquiring an electric Jaguar diplomatic vehicle and commissioning an electric tuk-tuk. These vehicles help to reduce the Embassy’s carbon footprint and set an example for other organizations in Laos.
As someone who believes in the power of diplomacy to usher in change, Mr. Pearson says, “If the British Embassy can do it, any organization can do it.”
Aside from the electric vehicles, Ambassador Pearson remains a keen cyclist, spending much of his leisure time pedaling through the countryside and taking in the scenery. And to put his money where his mouth is, Mr. Pearson says he has cycled almost every day of his mission.
However, this exercise has also brought to his attention the trash and plastic waste accumulating on the side of some of the country’s roads, which can make their way to water bodies, polluting and affecting the health of people downstream.
“I cycle a lot, and sometimes when I cycle through a village in Laos I see plastic rubbish, not being properly disposed of. I know there are waste collection services here, but I think it would be good if the service was expanded and more recycling facilities set up. Because at the moment, a lot of those waste products are entering the water and soil, affecting the health of people in Laos”.
Ambassador Pearson believes that awareness initiatives to safeguard the environment need to be implemented from a grassroots level, where residents receive guidance in the local language about simple and accessible ways to take care of their surroundings. Educating children from an early age about environmental issues is also an effective way to support the cause, he says.
During a year when agricultural burning led to hazardous levels of air pollution in the country, Mr. Pearson adds that there needs to be some form of accountability for those who violate laws on purpose and cause damage to the environment.
“The punishment could be a fine, or some sort of community service (like cleaning up rubbish). But if laws exist, there also needs to be an effective way of enforcing them,” he said.
Beyond environmental issues, Ambassador Pearson’s tenure has seen the British Embassy provide financial support for the removal of unexploded ordinances in Khammouane and Savannakhet provinces through MAG and the HALO Trust, two British organizations.
The British Embassy has also supported the Fleming Fund anti-microbial resistance program, to make sure that antibiotics work properly (working with organizations like LOMWRU and the Fondation Merieux). And it is supporting a program by Free the Bears in Luang Prabang aimed at combating the illegal wildlife trade
“We provide financial assistance to Free the Bears to build enclosures for the bears and the monkeys, including some vehicles to go rescue those animals that had been captured,” said Mr. Pearson who is an ardent supporter of civil society organizations as they play an important role in the development of a country.
Following the conclusion of his diplomatic mission in Laos, Ambassador Pearson will be stationed in New Zealand, an important post due to the country’s strategic importance for the United Kingdom and its significance in terms of business and education.
“I’ll be very sad to leave here [Laos]. I’ve spent a lot of time here that I really enjoyed, as Laos has a lot of lovely people, and we have done a lot of fantastic work, such as supporting really excellent projects. I’ll really miss that. It was a great opportunity for me.”
His advice to the next British Ambassador to Laos would be to simply make the most of their time here, as there will be good times along with some challenges.
“As an ambassador, you are likely to see good times, happy and cheerful times, and also challenging times. But ultimately, you have to be clear about what you want to achieve. I was very clear during my tenure to try and make a difference – maybe just slightly – but at least I can look at myself in the mirror in the evening and say, ‘alright, today I helped to make the world a better place.’”