Spinning a safety net: community-based natural resource management in Laos

In the heart of southeast Asia lies Communist Laos, a landlocked country of seven million people, a country of 49 ethnic groups and as many native tongues, with an ever-changing geography unified by the mighty Mekong River flowing down from China and Thailand and out into Cambodia. Most Laotians are paddy rice farmers, relying heavily on the pulse of the river and the timing of the monsoon season. When conditions are favourable, villagers grow paddy and upland rice, the country’s all-important crops, and raise chickens, ducks, pigs, buffaloes and frogs. Women also make an income from weaving done in the shade of stilted houses. During seasonal food shortages villagers turn to communally-managed pieces of forest and hillside to fill food gaps. This article will explore how these community-managed resources have been negatively impacted by the presence of developers and argue that increased knowledge of legal land rights and community conflict resolution are necessary in order to strengthen the ability of communities to protect and once again manage their own resources.

In the average Lao meal, reliance on forest products is abundantly evident: fat, crispy fried insects, fermented river fish paste, steamed and boiled greens and bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms and small game. These dishes are all eaten with scoops of one of the 15,000 varieties of fragrant sticky rice grown throughout Laos. In homes, bamboo is used for traps and building materials, rattan creates baskets and brooms, and barks, leaves and roots are dried to make medicine.

Use of forest areas are traditionally negotiated among different villages and are generally managed through light harvesting and the delineation of forest territory into land for production, conservation and protection. In some forests food may be gathered, but trees may not be cut, hillsides may not be cleared and fires may not be lit. In this way, village authorities control the extent of harvesting and ensure the forest environment is not degraded.

On the banks of the Nam Xan River, the small village of Ban Thitnoon recently had the visit that changes the lives of so many villages: the arrival of developers in shiny black SUVs. Before their eyes, village leaders saw their seasonal food shortages disappear in a haze of promises for a luxury tourist resort that would lead to education, a market for villagers’ goods and a financial safety net for hard years. The contract between the developers and village authorities was signed and work began. Villagers awakened too late to the painful realization that the developers had misrepresented their intentions and had instead dug an open-pit mine in a fast grab for mineral resources that resulted in flooding and chemical runoff into the surrounding water.

During a visit from representatives from Laos’ National Assembly, the village mediation unit of Ban Thitnoon reached out for help. A government representative was dispatched to investigate, and the sham developer took the profits and left. With that victory under their belts, the small village of Ban Thitnoon was left to survey the damage: 70% of their paddy lands were permanently flooded and unusable, the water was polluted and degraded and the forest cover eroded away in a number of places. A village that had been seasonally food insecure was now in crisis. Ban Thitnoon’s story is all-too-common in Laos.

MCC has worked to address the threat posed by developers to traditional Laotian community-based natural resource management by raising awareness of villagers’ legal land rights. So, for example, since 2009 MCC has worked on a food security project with the Xaysomboun Provincial Department of Agriculture. MCC staff have explained to village authorities in the area their right to refuse contracts with developers, their rights to negotiate contracts and their options for legal recourse in the case of disputes over contracts. In Tha Thom district, MCC works with elected Village Mediation Units (VMUs) to strengthen their capacity to defend villagers’ legal rights and their ability to take recourse when developers fail to obtain permission or go beyond the bounds of negotiated contracts. MCC also works with local government officials to obtain land certificates for individual families, helping them prove their right to use specific land and thus increase their legal ability to retain their land. As the Landesa Rural Development Institute observes, “secure rights to land are a critical, but often overlooked, factor in achieving household food security and improved nutritional status” (Landesa Rural Development Institute, 1). Secure long-term land tenure is essential before farmers can invest time in agricultural development training on matters such as soil improvement, animal forage, techniques for better rice yields, fruit tree cultivation and animal raising.

In a period of unprecedented development in Laos, villagers are relocating throughout the country to make way for hydroelectric development, plantations, mines and other economic development projects. Such mass internal migration can result in serious disputes, especially as different ethnic groups come into contact for the first time, knowing little about each other’s customs. MCC assists in training VMUs to help solve conflicts that arise in both of these situations. As a result, VMUs deal with a variety of concerns, ranging from serious land boundary conflicts to disputes of the “your-cow-ate-my-vegetable-patch” variety. If these disputes can be solved locally, and in culturally-appropriate ways, it relieves the overburdened justice system and contributes to social cohesion. Laos has been described as having “the resource curse,” the seeming blessing of abundant natural resources undermined by weak regulation and powerful neighbours. With perseverance and the increasing interest of government and civilians, legal education about villagers’ land rights can protect this vital set of resources and keep the shelves of these natural food cupboards stocked for generations to come.

Emily Nigh is agricultural advisor for MCC Laos, based in Vientiane.

 Learn more:

 Landesa Rural Development Institute. “Landesa Issue Brief: Land Rights and Food Security.” 13 (March 2012). Available at https://www.landesa.org/wp-content/uploads/Landesa-Issue-Brief-Land-Rights-and-Food-Security.pdf

Baird, Ian G. and Bruce Shoemaker. “Unsettling Experiences: Internal Resettlement and International Aid Agencies in Laos.” Development and Change 38/5 (September 2007): 865–888.

Ministry of Justice Law Research and International Cooperation Institute. “Customary Law and Practise in Lao PDR.” (July 2011). Available at http://www.la.undp.org/content/lao_pdr/en/home/library/democratic_governance/customary-law.html

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