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Baseline Information of Lao PDR

Indigenous Peoples, Forest and REDD in the Lao PDR

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is a landlocked country bordering China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. It is one of the few remaining politically socialist countries and, following the communist takeover in 1975, opened up to the world only at the end of the 1980s4. According to the UN, the Lao PDR is one of the Least Developed Countries in the world.

In spite of its relatively small population of about 6.3 million, Laos is the most ethnically diverse in mainland Southeast Asia. The population can be divided into three ethnic categories: 1. the ethnic Lao, comprising around a third of the population, economically and culturally dominate the country 2. another third consisting of members of other Tai Language speaking groups and 3. peoples whose first languages belong to the Mon-Khmer, Sino-Tibetan and Hmong-leu Mien families. The latter two groups are sometimes considered to be the “indigenous peoples” of Laos. Officially all ethnic groups have equal status and therefore the concept of “indigenous peoples” is not generally recognized. The Lao government recognizes over 100 ethnic subgroups within 49 ethnic groups. Some researchers have estimated there to be well over 200 ethnic groups throughout the country.

The indigenous peoples of Laos reside mainly in mountainous areas. They are generally economically worse off than Lao groups and form the majority in Laos’ poorest districts. They experience various livelihood-related challenges and their lands and resources are under increasing pressure from government development policies and commercial natural resource exploitation (tree plantations, mining concessions and the construction of large hydroelectric dams). There is no specific legislation in Laos with regard to indigenous peoples. The indigenous peoples in the highlands subsist on shifting cultivation supplemented by animal husbandry, gathering of forest products, hunting and fishing. They are particularly dependent upon the forest. It provides them with wood for construction and for fuel and a wide variety of non- timber forest products, which serve a wide range of domestic needs and opportunities for income generation.

Forest cover has declined significantly from 70 percent in the 1970s to about 47 percent in 2002. The causes are manifold: expanding industrial agriculture, new settlements, road infrastructure development, hydropower plant construction, and logging for export in the absence of a sound forest management system. Shifting cultivation is also often cited as one of the main causes of forest destruction even though it has been followed for years and appears to be a sustainable form of agriculture when long fallow periods are used.

Laws and Policies on Forestry, Land Use and Land Rights

Laos’ policies regarding forestry, land use and land rights were put forward in 2005 in the paper “Forestry Strategy to the Year 2020 of the Lao PDR”. The FS 2020 presented a comprehensive review of the status of forestry sector including resources situation, use and management, past and on-going policy and programs. It also set future challenges and development objectives for sustainable development and management of the forestry sector, a range of policies, programs and actions and identified the responsible agencies and main stakeholders to address each respective action.

There has been a program for allocating land and forest in Laos since 1997. All land and natural forests in Laos belong to the state. Therefore land allocation does not represent recognition of individual property. Rather it is a formal recognition of user rights. The program for allocation of land is commonly referred to as Land Use Planning and Land Allocation (LUP-LA). Up until 2007 village level land use planning and land allocation programs were undertaken in 7,130 villages and reached 443,523 families. A total area of 10,860,000 hectares of land had been allocated, of which 4,210,000 hectares was agricultural land and 6,650,000 hectares was forest land of different categories.

LUP-LA however has generally been considered a failure. Most often it was driven by the government’s policy of eradicating shifting cultivation and not the villagers’ priorities and was having negative impacts on villagers’ livelihoods. By 2008 there was a general agreement that the previous approach of allocating limited agricultural land to contain shifting cultivation and increase forest area was no longer appropriate. A consensus emerged in Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and National Land Management Authority that village and village cluster land zoning to enable improved management of village forests and development in agricultural zones is a more appropriate approach and land allocation to individual households should be discontinued. By 2009 this approach had been formalized in a new manual for participatory land use planning (PLUP), which the government intends to apply in the future.

The Lao PDR government passed a new Forestry Law in 2008. Unfortunately the law does not recognize local rights over forests but reaffirms the state’s control of all lands and forests, and empowers the state to make all decisions regarding who uses forestlands and for what. Under the legislation, locals do not even have any particular rights over forests directly adjacent to their communities. Instead, communities are only allowed to manage forest areas if they are allocated to them by District Governors. District Governors can arbitrarily revoke those rights as well. The concept of “community” or “village forests” is not recognized in the new legislation. In contrast to the new manual for PLUP there is no mention of customary rights or resources, and there are no possibilities for communal land or forest rights.

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