This article provides some field observations of activities carried out under the project on ‘Village-based Forest Rehabilitation in Lao PDR’ at one of the project sites in Sangthong district. The restoration activities include the formation of village groups, the establishment of ex-situ conservation and enrichment plantations, seedling production of essential timber species as well as advocacy and awareness efforts.
Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is a small landlocked country in Southeast Asia with a land area of 23.68 million hectares, and a growing population of 7.06 million. The country is committed to conserving and protecting its natural resources, forest cover in particular, to maintain healthy ecosystems in and around the Mekong river basin. About 70% of the population is dependent on forest resources, and the country has the vision of moving towards a New Green Forest Economy with a desire to increase its forest cover to 70% of its total land area. Due to rapid socioeconomic developments, forest cover decreased from 70% in 1992 to around 40.3% in 2010 according to some reports. The frequently cited drivers of deforestation and degradation include shifting cultivation, unsustainable timber harvest, and conversion of forestland into agricultural land and infrastructure sites.
Creating an enabling environment
State forests in Lao PDR are categorized into Protection Forest, Conservation Forest, and National Production Forest. The development of the forest sector in Lao PDR is guided by the Forest Strategy 2020, which is evolving into a new national plan targeting the year 2030 — the National Green Growth Strategy 2019-2030. These strategies aim to increase forest cover to 70% of the total land area by rehabilitating degraded forests, promoting the establishment of tree plantations, and minimizing forest degradation and deforestation. Of late, the government has approved land concessions of around 500,000 ha for 550 companies for tree plantation, to increase its forest cover. Under the Forest Strategy 2020, the government also identifies ‘village land use and forest management’ as one of the thematic areas to encourage the participation of villagers and communities to achieve the target areas of reforestation.
Village-driven forest rehabilitation in Sangthong District, Vientiane
One of the components of the Landmark Program launched by the Asian Forest Cooperation Organization (AFoCO) is the Restoration of Degraded Forests in Member Countries. Lao PDR proposed a ten-year village-driven forest management project that commenced in 2016 as a part of the implementation of its Forest Strategy 2020. The objectives of the project include restoring degraded forest areas, strengthening the capabilities of stakeholders including villagers, and contributing to poverty reduction in local communities. The project sites are located in Sangthong District, about 60 km north of Vientiane, the capital of Lao PDR. The total area of the district is 75,980 ha with the forest cover, agricultural land, and other land uses constituting 55%, 33%, and 10% respectively. Sangthong district is one of the poorest districts of Vientiane, and existing forest lands are highly fragmented with a high degree of degradation. Acrisols and Alisols dominate the soils of the area. The rainy season begins from May through September with an average rainfall of 1,558mm and an annual average temperature of 31.9°C.
Seedling production and enrichment plantations by villagers
The project team adopted the Saemul Undong movement or New Village Movement to engage, educate and improve the local environment and local incomes of the villagers. It is one of the best practices of forest restoration experienced and promoted by the Republic of Korea (ROK), who managed to increase its forest cover from 35% in the 1960s to over 57% by the 1970s through this model.
At Sangthong, two Village Forest Development Groups (VFDGs) were formed. To ensure that field activities proceed smoothly, contract agreements were also signed between the VFDGs and the project team. One of the groups was assigned to produce seedlings for ex-situ conservation and enrichment plantations, and the other group was assigned to take up the plantation works. Around 64,340 seedlings of native species (Afzelia, Pterocarpus, Teak, Tectona, Sindora, and Shorea) were produced, and 20 ha of enrichment plantation was completed in 2019 (see photos below). The project staff and VFDG members also carried out a reassessment of natural regeneration and potential area of enrichment planting in four villages of Sangthong district as an input for the following year planning. Regular patrolling the surrounding Phoukhanya mountain areas are conducted by Village Forest Protection Groups (VFPGs).
For advocacy and awareness, the project team organized a number of educational field activities in 2019. A team from Nepal, Ministry of Agriculture, Laos Biodiversity Organization, RECOFTC, Thailand and Voices for Mekong Forests visited the project site to learn more about village-driven forest management.
Proper biophysical information of the country and local sites were documented, including a statement of the government policies and strategies under implementation in the country. It is vital for project objectives to align with or provide support to the implementation of government policies as demonstrated by this project. The mainstreaming or ownership of the project is also crucial to create links to a healthy exit strategy. Equally important is the engagement of villagers through group formations and above all, the project has been sensitive to the livelihood and local environmental needs of the communities involved. In spite of its short implementing period, the opinions and experiences shared by villagers participating in this project have contributed towards the improvement of the Forestry Law, which was promulgated on 13 June 2019. Activities in this article do not constitute an exhaustive list of the project. One should visit the project site to learn more about advocacy and awareness activities.
Contributed by Soozin Ryang, Oupakone Alounsavath and Chencho Norbu