Laotian Government Presses Ahead with Land Policy; Signals Commitment to Strengthening Policy Implementation and Securing Rights of Local Communities

As major international conference opens in Lao PDR, high-level government leaders commit to implement large-scale land reform

VIENTIANE, LAO PDR (28 August 2012)—During a riveting keynote speech given at an international land and forestry conference in Vientiane today, Dr. Souvanhpheng Boupphanouvong, the President of the Committee on Economy, Planning and Finance of the National Assembly of Lao PDR, announced the government’s intention to undergo a nationwide formal process of large scale land reform, and prioritize enhanced effectiveness of land policy implementation and the need for increased local land management, given that access to land for rural households is fundamental to sustained poverty alleviation.

“For over a year, Lao has been undergoing a process of reviewing and revising various policies and legislation pertaining to land and natural resources. What we’ve learned from countries across the world is that a sound policy framework must be coupled with equally sound and effective policy implementation. Also, by ensuring local peoples’ rights to the land they live and work on, we’ll be able to secure equitable distribution of benefits.” said Dr. Souvanhpheng Boupphanouvong to the global audience at the Workshop on International Knowledge Sharing and Learning hosted by the National Assembly of Lao PDR in cooperation with the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and RECOFTC-The Center for People and Forests in Vientiane, Lao PDR, on August 28-29, 2012. The workshop was inaugurated by Dr. Saysomphone Phomvihane, Vice President of the National Assembly.

“A new national land policy is a priority in Laos,” Dr. Boupphanouvong added. “Competition for land among various sectors is intensifying, and as a nation, we must act to prevent conflicts and ensure that the increasingly scarce land resource is developed in a way that contributes to national development goals and alleviates poverty among the rural population.”

The government organization responsible for developing the new Land Use Policy is the new Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) working together with the Lao National Assembly. They are committed to conduct the process in close collaboration with other relevant sectors, as well as the civil society and community groups.

Mr. James Bampton, Program Director of RECOFTC noted how seriously the government is taking the land rights issue.

“We all heard Dr. Boupphanouvong say that what is needed now are policies and laws that prevent land disputes and enhance livelihoods in an equitable manner,” said Mr. Bampton. “The high level people in this room suggest that this is now a true priority for Lao PDR. This is something that all stakeholders in the land sector, in particular the villagers, have been waiting for, and hopefully, will soon benefit from.”

Participants from more than eleven countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe shared their experiences, suggesting that granting greater control to local forest communities has been a key element in the turn-around accomplished by many of these countries, including China, South Korea, Mexico, Sweden, Nepal, Vietnam and Norway.

“Lao PDR is the latest in a series of countries around the world that are realizing the fundamental role of local control and improved forest governance in alleviating poverty, expanding legal and sustainable land management, and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” said Arvind Khare, Executive Director of the Rights and Resources Group, the nonprofit coordinating mechanism of the Rights and Resources Initiative. “RRI’s research and firsthand experience in other nations suggests that if Lao PDR does as it says it will do, it will slow the unsustainable use of the nations’ lands and unleash the entrepreneurial energy of Lao villagers whose capacity to maintain and benefit from the use of the land they live on is currently restricted because of shortcomings in the legal framework and its implementation.”

In her keynote address, Dr. Souvanhpheng Boupphanouvong said that “the government will now move immediately to creating a sound policy and legal framework where the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved in land use and development are clearly defined. Subsequently, the focus will shift to improving the effectiveness of policy implementation. Securing villagers’ rights and ensuring that they receive a fair share of the benefits of land development is another key issue to be tackled.”

“This represents a major improvement in our policies toward land rights and local management,” said Dr. Akhom Tounalom, Vice Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, in his remarks to an audience comprised of researchers, high level government officials, policymakers, international experts on forestry and land reform, and community leaders from across Asia, Africa and Latin America. “Our current policies and their implementation are not sufficient to ensure that we can meet our goals in terms of poverty eradication, economic growth, food security and climate change.”

Source: RRI

Government urged to review land compensation

Vientiane Times, August 20,2012

Many villagers in Laos now feel afraid of losing their land for development projects despite holding land titles, according to land experts who asked not to be named. Their concerns have arisen after development projects in past years have ended up encroaching on villagers’ land, forests and watershed areas. Unfortunately the compensation for affected families has not always been sufficient to improve their livelihoods, he said recently.

The lack of land surveys and allocation or clear urban planning could mean that the land issue will continue to be the top concern of villagers due to the inflow of foreign investment to operate mega projects in Laos. Land experts called for the government to review land compensation provided to villagers to ensure that they will enjoy better lives afterwards. The government is currently drafting a national land policy to serve as a guideline for land use in the future and address land disputes in the country. If completed, the enactment of a national land policy will pave the way for Laos to amend the land laws and other legislation relating to land use, in order to reflect the reality of the situation in the country as it stands currently. The draft policy defined directives, mechanisms and measures regarding land management, allocation, the classification of land use for different purposes and land compensation. The draft policy also touched upon the evaluation of land prices and land markets, converting land into capital, land taxes, land titles, land management in special economic zones and poverty reduction related to land use. “Without a comprehensive land policy, all current land disputes will never be resolved,” experts said, saying that the land policy and law must be harmonised with other sectors including urban planning, agriculture, forestry and mining.  President of the Economics, Planning and Finance Committee of the National Assembly Dr Souvanpheng Bouphanouvong said at a land meeting last month that land is directly related to the livelihoods of the multi-ethnic Lao people. She thought that a national land policy is urgently needed in order to address land disputes and contribute to alleviating poverty. The Champassak Provincial Department of Justice accepted that disputes related to land use submitted to the People’s Court were difficult to solve despite the court reaching verdicts on the matter, noting that the injured party did not usually accept the court’s verdict. Land disputes were the top issue of concern raised by members of the public who called the National Assembly hotline during the NA session in June this year. Laos has about 1.6 million land plots and so far about 620,000 plots have been titled, of which 300,000 are owned by the State, while the rest is villagers’ land. The government plans to complete a land survey and allocation as well as a land title project by 2015.

Laos: Communal land titles could save more than forests

VIENTIANE, 16 April 2012 (IRIN) - With pressure on natural resources increasing in Laos, the first community land titles granted to five villages in Vientiane Province could provide a national model for environmental protection while safeguarding the livelihoods of villagers.

“It’s very important because the communal land titles can give communities the right to access and harvest natural resources, and overcome land concessions to companies,” Souvanpheng Phommasane, an advisor for SNV Netherlands Development Organization told IRIN.

The title deeds cover an area of 2,189 hectares of bamboo-producing forest. After a two-year process the land was finally handed over to the five villages in Sangthong District, 50km west of the capital, Vientiane, in February.

Hanna Saarinen, coordinator for the Land Issues Working Group, which represents 40 concerned civil society organizations, says the issue of land ownership is becoming more urgent.

“In the last five to 10 years there have been more and more competing interests [seeking control] over natural resources,” she said. Private sector companies as well as communities “have been using the same land, the same forest for years”.

The government’s 2011-2015 development plan sets a target of at least 8 percent annual economic growth, driven primarily by extractive industries, such as mining, hydropower and plantation agriculture. All these activities require significant land allocation, while slash-and-burn agriculture and logging further diminish forested areas.

Trees once spread across 70 percent of Laos, but in 2010 the Department of Forestry estimated that this has now been reduced to just 40 percent. The decline in forest cover not only has wide environmental impacts but also affects rural incomes.

Per capita income stands at just over US$1,000 per year, the World Bank reports, and 75 percent of the country’s workforce earns a livelihood from agriculture.

Government statistics note that non-timber forest products, such as bamboo, contribute about 40 percent of rural income.

A bamboo trade association in Sangthong District, set up in 2007, designs and produces furniture and handicrafts made from local bamboo. The district administration states that households involved in the project can earn an additional 2 million Lao Kip ($250) a month - a significant amount for villagers living in one of the 46 districts designated by the government as the poorest in the country.

Salongsay Mixay, the head of Na Po village, says the local forests were under threat before the land titles were granted.

“There were different cases. A big truck comes from somewhere - no one knows where, maybe the city - and they cut [bamboo] and went away. The second case is the investor who talks to the villagers and says, ‘I want to cut this much [bamboo],’ and pays a little amount of money, and leaves.”

Replicating the land-grant model across this Southeast Asian nation may not be straightforward. “In Sangthong it was a specific case because they had this bamboo project - they were already managing the bamboo areas, they had a forest management plan - but there are no clear guidelines or manuals, so the districts do not know how to do it in practice,” said Saarinen.

Support from a number of development organizations, with funding through the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, and implementation by the United Nations Development Programme, helped the Sangthong District administration to tackle the procedures needed to apply for and eventually be granted the title deeds to the land.

Phommasane from SNV Netherlands believes that if other districts receive similar support they could also get communal land titles. The government is carrying out a land policy review that is expected to formalize the procedures for granting communal land titles.

Giving ownership of more of the land to the villagers who earn their living from it could be critical to the government’s stated ambition of restoring forest cover to 65 percent of the country by 2015.

Khamoon Tiengthila, the Sangthong District deputy governor, says he is proud of what his district has achieved. “It’s a small project that contributes to preserving the world’s environment. The forest is important for development and the economy.”

Source: IRIN Asia

Lao Govt to consider suspending large mining, land concessions

May 08, 2012

The government may suspend new large mining projects and land concessions this year amid rising concerns about the social and environmental impacts of various private investment projects. The Ministry of Planning and Investment announced yesterday it would propose that the cabinet suspend the granting of new concessions for large mining projects and industrial tree plantations until it comes up with concrete measures to address the negative impacts associated with such investment projects. 

The proposal recommends the government to encourage those investors who have already received mining concessions to get their projects underway, while monitoring and evaluating the positive and negative impacts of the projects before deciding whether to resume investment in the mining sector. 

The government also needs to review and evaluate large land concessions for industrial tree plantations after finding that some of these projects encroach onto the farmland of ordinary people. In addition, Laos is unable to provide sufficient manpower to work on these tree plantations, which is creating pressure in terms of managing the inflow of foreign workers.

Source: http://www.forestcarbonasia.org/in-the-media/lao-govt-to-consider-suspending-large-mining-land-concessions/

Laos: Govt to create 49 forest protection areas

March 26, 2012

The government has agreed to establish 49 forestry protection areas in all 16 provinces, at its monthly meeting held in Vientiane on March 22-23.

The move aims to preserve the country's forests as a key contributor to the prevention of soil erosion and landslides, as well as protect the environment and watershed areas for the benefit of Lao people.

The project will include the allocation of permanent jobs for local people, who will be employed to ensure that forested areas are protected with the goal of restoring forest cover nationwide to 70 percent by 2020.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, forest cover in Laos currently comprises 41 percent of the total land area.

The government meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and other cabinet members.

The meeting also agreed in principle to a national strategy related to unexploded ordnance (UXO) for 2011-2020.

The aim is to minimise the impact of UXO remaining from the Indochina War on people's lives and socio-economic development, as well as to create a safer environment for Lao people as they struggle to rise above poverty.

In addition, the government agreed in principle with a draft decree to enforce the Standards Law, which aims to more clearly define the law, ensuring that all Lao people understand the law and jointly enforce it.

The government meeting also approved in principle a draft amendment to the Law on Sports. The amendment aims to respond to changes in the government's structure and the need for greater international integration.

Mr Thongsing advised the relevant sectors to improve the above-mentioned pieces of legislation based on the recommendations of meeting participants.

He urged government sectors to prepare for the Lao New Year (Pi Mai Lao) by ensuring public security and order among Lao people and visiting tourists.

The Prime Minister also advised the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism to publicise the appropriate way to celebrate the New Year, in line with long-held traditions.

He advised the ministry to strongly push the “Visit Laos Year 2012” campaign to bring more tourists to Laos and generate income, so that more people could rise above poverty.

Mr Thongsing also advised government bodies to encourage their officials to do more work in local areas to boost village development.

He said government agencies need to complete their socio-economic development and budget plans for 2012-13 in order to be ready for the government meeting in April.

He urged the relevant sectors to strongly encourage dry-season productivity and pay debts the government has approved for infrastructure projects that were affected by natural disasters.

These sectors need to strictly register foreign labourers, while encouraging Lao nationals to undergo the necessary processes to work legally in neighbouring countries.

T he Ministry of Home Affairs needs to play an active role in issuing notices related to the role and function of various ministries, to make it easier for the public to contact them in regard to their work.

The Prime Minister urged the relevant sectors to continue to prepare for Laos' accession to the World Trade Organisation, and for the ASEM Summit in November.

By Times Reporters

Source: Vientiane Times

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