Communal land titles could save more than forests

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.

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Villagers practice slash and burn agriculture in northern Laos

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.”