Recent legislative changes in Lao PDR have opened up new opportunities for clarifying and protecting customary tenure claims in state forest areas. This comes at a critical time. According to a recent Government of Lao PDR report (Land Leases and Concessions in Lao PDR (2020)), supported by the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment, around one-third of land concessions have been granted inside these forest areas, commonly in land under traditional and customary management by local communities. The risk is significant, as around 3,000 villages in Lao PDR lie inside these forest areas, few of whose land claims benefit from formal recognition. Since 2018, MRLG has been working together with the Government of Lao PDR to develop better legal and practical approaches to address this issue. From 18 to 28 November 2020, an evaluation team visited three communities in Khammouane Province to assess progress on key field work that will inform these efforts. The main objective was to obtain information on the actual implementation of pilot project activities to serve as a basis for an independent assessment of the progress, achievements and envisioned impact of the work of the Customary Tenure Alliance. The evaluation team included Mr. Soukkasem Lomathmanyvong , (Laos National Land Governance Facilitator, MRLG), Mr. Julian Derbidge (Independent Evaluation Consultant) and officials from the Department of Land (DoL) under the Ministry of Natural Resources (MoNRE).
To reach one pilot village—Ban Nahao—the team travelled nearly three hours by boat along the Namxot River. Upon arrival, MoNRE technical staff began setting up ground control points for the cadastral survey that would take place over the following two weeks. The day after arrival marked the official opening of the MRLG Customary Tenure Workstream’s pilot work in Nakai, which aims to show pathways for recognising customary land tenure inside the National Park. The event was well attended by high-level officials from national, provincial and district levels, with representatives from MoNRE, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), the Lao Front for National Development and the Lao Women’s Union.
Prior to the Nakai visit, the team was able to interview villager groups in Viengthong and Phonedy villages in Hinboun District, where the pilot implementation team led by DoL had already completed cadastral surveys and issued Land Survey Certificates to most households. Despite the complexity of the issues at hand, MoNRE and MAF have committed to working out practical solutions and appropriate legal frameworks for recognising and protecting various land claims, not only for residential and permanent agricultural land uses, but also for communally managed agriculture and forest lands. To do this, the Alliance must evaluate conditions and opportunities across all state forest areas equally as elaborated through the pilots in Nakai District Conservation Forest, Hinboun District Protection Forest and Xebangfai District Production Forest.
The visit confirmed that, while government agencies possess the technical capabilities to survey and assess land and forest claims, there are still several obstacles to overcome. Ensuring full and transparent safeguarding of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and elaborating pathways to recognise tenure beyond permanent land uses are essential.