There are a lot of debates surrounding forest resources in Laos. An interesting trend is how these issues are coming out in the mass media, thus revealing the ambiguities of state policies and practice. The World Bank’s involvement with the Nam Theun 2 dam and SUFORD (Sustainable Upland Forestry and Rural Development Project) intersects with internal jostling over forests, particularly in relation to Vietnamese-funded rubber plantations and the emergence of the National Land Management Authority.
At the beginning of June the World Bank released Laos’ first Environmental Monitor as a complement to the standard Economic Monitor. The executive summary is direct:
Once the Land of a Million Elephants, Lao PDR is now confronted with numerous environmental challenges. The unsustainable exploitation of resources has resulted in degradation of land and loss of natural habitats. This degradation, combined with declining water quality and increasing threats to air quality, is disproportionately impacting the poorest groups in the country.
Three weeks later the Minister of Industry and Commerce announced to the National Assembly the closure of 2,088 out of 2,888 sawmills and furniture factories around the country. Interestingly the Economic Monitor reports that there were only 125-150 sawmills in the country (p. 19) and makes no mention of other wood-processing factories. And a representative from Attapeu noted that “…despite the prime minister’s order, business was booming for timber exports in Attapeu.”
On the same day the Committee for Planning and Investment hosted a meeting “to foster a better understanding of potential environmental impacts brought about by trade liberalisation in Laos.” A representative from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry even stated that it “was necessary to carry out surveys of land to be used for rubber tree plantations to make sure that forests were not cut unnecessarily”.
Yet in the lead up to the upcoming 30th anniversary of the signing of the Lao-Viet treaty a spokeswoman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “the most outstanding Vietnamese investment project in Laos had been rubber tree plantations.” New Lao-Viet joint wood processing ventures continue to be announced and some provinces have signalled their intentions to export more wood products.
At the selection of party members for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry the elected secretary reiterated the ministry’s commitment to reduce slash-and-burn cultivation and “in cooperation with other countries to raise funds … to establish new plantations on vast tracts of land across the country, raising the total forest area to 53 percent, including protected areas.”
There appears to be a lot of action going around forest resources in Laos at the moment and a surprising amount of diversity is getting press coverage.