Can REDD save the forests of Laos?

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2016-02-26-173840_1055x1026_scrotIn 2000, the Bangkok-based NGO TERRA published an anonymous article in its magazine Watershed. The article documented how Laos was losing its forests to large scale industrial logging, often carried out in breach of the country’s forestry laws.

Three military companies were heavily involved in logging in Laos. A provincial forestry official who uncovered major infringements of forestry laws by one of these companies was powerless to act. “What could we do anyway?” he said. “They are more powerful than the government.”

The article noted that more than half of the timber harvest came from proposed hydropower projects. Logging of the reservoir area often started well before feasibility studies for the dam had been carried out.

Nevertheless, the Lao government’s actions to address deforestation focussed on stopping shifting cultivation. The article stated that,

It has been an article of faith of the government since before 1975 … that shifting cultivation is destructive and needs to be replaced by more sedentary cropping techniques such as wet rice cultivation.

Government statistics blamed shifting cultivation for vast areas of forest destruction. But the article explains that this is based on distorted data collection, and that it is “misleading to suggest that shifting cultivation is responsible for the majority of forest destruction currently occuring”.

Since the arrival of REDD, surely all this has changed? Well, er, no.

Last year, a leaked report by WWF revealed that, if anything, the situation had become even worse. Deforestation in Laos is accelerating, with almost all logging operations linked to infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams, roads, mining, and plantations.

The report described illegal logging in Laos as a “worst case scenario”.

Rosewood as legal tender

At the end of last year an article was published on the website Southeast Asia Globe. The article reports that Lao authorities are taking rosewood trees from poor villagers in return for essential services. It’s an extraordinary story.

About eight years ago, Électricité du Laos (EDL), the state-owned national energy company, started connecting homes in Bolikhamxay province in central Laos to the electricity grid. Villagers paid for this service with trees.

“They ask each family if they want electricity and then check people’s gardens to find big trees,” Boun, one of the villagers, told the journalist, Michelle Kondron. Of course EDL wanted the biggest trees. “Without five trees, they charge you lots of money.” Boun said. “When we got the electricity, all our big trees suddenly disappeared.”

EDL filled the local schoolyard with logs. It took almost six months to transport the logs away.

EDL’s preferred species was rosewood. In China, rosewood is worth US$50,000 per cubic metre, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The Ministry of Public Works also takes payment in the form of trees. “When the district decides to connect a village to roads and electricity they check out the community forest and assess which trees to take,” Boun said.

REDD at a crossroads, or up the creek without a paddle?

If REDD is going to address deforestation in Laos, clearly it needs to address the causes of deforestation, including logging related to infrastructure projects and rampant corruption.

Last year, CIFOR published a report about REDD in Laos: “REDD+ at the crossroads: Choices and tradeoffs for 2015 – 2020 in Laos“.

The authors of the report, Michael Dwyer (from CIFOR) and Micah Ingalls (from Cornell University) argue that,

While some have been quick to judge REDD a failure as it has run up against issues such as illegal logging, insecure forest tenure and the prioritization of economic development by national policymakers in the global south, others point out that running headlong into the reality of development is precisely the point.

Dwyer and Ingalls argue that REDD could provide an opportunity “to engage fundamental development issues like land tenure insecurity, opaque spatial planning, poor forest management, and the heavy reliance on resource extraction for economic growth”.

But in Laos, as elsewhere, REDD has failed to address these issues.

Dwyer and Ingalls note that REDD in Laos has focussed on smallholders as the drivers of deforestation, rather than agro-industrial concessions, mining concessions and energy and transportation infrastructure.

One REDD practitioner told them that,

Perhaps it was a strategic decision by the government of Laos, but when all of these REDD demonstration projects came in, they were all directed to protected areas. In part, they probably knew that PAs were underfunded areas. But it’s also [the case] that the only drivers that are particularly a threat to these protected areas are swidden agriculturalists, which you could also say are the low-hanging fruit, the easy ones to deal with: the opportunity costs are lower. So a lot of REDD [in Laos] and a lot of the experience to date means that there has been almost no engagement in terms of looking at some of the other drivers: infrastructure, large-scale concessions, that kind of thing.

A consultant with a German-funded REDD project who spoke to Michelle Kondron, the journalist, was more blunt about REDD in Laos:

“We spend a fortune in taxpayers’ money trying to save a small area of forest. When the project is over the people or the army will log the area. I don’t know why we bother. We can hear the chainsaws nearby. They pay the men $20 to work all night felling trees. They give them yaba [methamphetamine] so they can keep working.”

 

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