Vientiane Times, 29 May, 2013
The government will soon scrutinise the boundaries of protected areas in Laos, after many thousands of hectares of protected areas have been encroached upon for farming activities and commercial tree plantations in recent years. Logging in Nam Kan National Protected Area in Bokeo province is sparking serious concerns. Illegal logging remains a challenge for Laos in its efforts to protect its natural resources for the future.
Director General of the Forestry Resource Management Department, Mr Khamphanh Nanthavong told Vientiane Times this week that the existing protected areas were demarcated decades ago and many people get confused about the areas. He added that the lack of clear boundaries has led villagers to grab land plots in the protected areas to plant crops for their livelihoods without knowing that they have intruded into the protected areas. Meanwhile, the law enforcement sector has not been working sufficiently hard in relation to informing the villagers and protecting natural resources, he added.
Currently, Laos has 24 national protected areas, covering 3.8 million hectares. If provincial and district protected areas are included, the total protected areas in Laos extend over 4.7 million hectares. These protected areas are of significant ecological importance due to their abundant forests and biodiversity. They also serve as watersheds to feed a number of rivers which are very important for hydropower development, tourism and agricultural production.
Unfortunately most protected areas in Laos have been encroached and damaged in the past decades due to various issues, including slash and burnt cultivation, land taken for farming, illegal logging, industrial tree plantations and other development projects. The problems have arisen due to the lack of land surveys and allocation and unclear boundary demarcation of the protected areas. Although Laos has several laws related to the preservation of protected areas, the laws have not been enforced properly, leading to the destruction of protected areas.
Forestry experts have said that some business people have hired local people to undertake illegal logging in the protected areas on their behalf. Some say many big trees in protected areas have been logged away for commercial purposes and comparatively few remain. The activity continued for many years due the government funding shortages, human resource deficiencies and insufficient equipment to patrol the protected areas.
Mr Khamphanh said the most important thing is to encourage participation by local communities in protection efforts by raising awareness and ensuring that villagers understand the significance of the forests and the role of protected areas for their livelihoods in the longer run. Without community involvement, the problems occurring in protected areas will remain unsolved, he said, saying that the government urged all relevant sectors to work harder in cooperation to address the issue.
As the country develops, forest cover is in rapid decline. In 1992, forest coverage was about 47 percent of the total land surface area and this further decreased to about 42 percent in 2002. As of 2010, it stood somewhere around the 40 percent mark. Therefore, it is quite a challenge for the government to increase forest cover to 65 percent by 2015 and 70 percent by 2020.