Big Win for Forest Rights in Laos

Some 3,000 villages in Laos—and more than 1 million smallholder farmers—live within areas designated as State forests that include both forests and non-forestlands. Smallholders have used these lands for farming, the collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and other livelihood activities, often for generations. However, the security of their tenure in these forest areas has long been unclear. Because existing laws do not provide clear mechanisms for recognising and protecting land claims, farmers in these areas have, in some instances, been moved off their land to make way for concessions, or have had their livelihoods undermined by State forest management decisions.

While the 2019 revisions to the Land and Forestry Laws did much to clarify issues surrounding land rights in Laos, new provisions prohibiting the issuance of private land titles inside State forest areas cast doubt on whether smallholders in these areas would be able to realise their land rights. However, a major step forward was taken in July 2021. MRLG and its Alliance members in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) organised a meeting between the Deputy Ministers of each respective agency to take up the challenge of clarifying the pathways through which this would be resolved. Crucially, this meeting came to the following key agreements. First, for villages that were in existence before these areas were declared State forests, permanent land uses such as gardens, paddies and residences, would be eligible for exclusion from State forestlands, paving the way for individual land titling. Second, collective agricultural land used for shifting cultivation and other purposes would remain within State forest areas but be eligible for land use certificates. Third, consistent with provisions in the Law, community forests will be recognised and rights protected through the issuance of Village Forest Management and Conservation Contracts.

‘MRLG and GIZ are working to find the best approaches and appropriate procedures to formalise  tenure rights in the forestland.  These will be factored into the sub-legislation development,’ said Viladeth Sisoulath, GIZ Laos.

The government also reiterated its commitment to fully respect customary tenure claims within State forest areas. Going forward, MRLG will continue to support its Alliance members, government counterparts and other partners to develop the necessary sub-legislation that will operationalise these decisions and mainstream them within Laos’s legal framework. Importantly, these efforts will create the right enabling conditions for country-wide systematic land registration initiatives, supported by German Cooperation, the World Bank and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

‘As MRLG is working with our Alliance to secure land tenure for smallholder farmers, we are very happy to see positive progress from the Lao government,’ said Dr. Micah Ingalls, MRLG Team Leader. ‘Our Alliance members and partners in government and civil society have done a remarkable job in moving forward under challenging conditions. There is still much to be done in the struggle to achieve equitable land rights for smallholder farmers in Laos and, in so doing, to help to build the nation, reduce poverty, and provide a brighter future for the country.’  

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