Lao announces dramatic shift in land policy, commits to expand rights of communities, ethnic groups

VIENTIANE, LAO PDR (28 August 2012)—During a riveting keynote speech given at a international land and forestry conference in Vientiane today, Dr. Souvanhpheng Bouphanouvong, President of the National Assembly of Lao's Committee on Economic Planning and Finance, announced the government's intention to undergo a nationwide formal process of large scale land reform, and prioritize the need for increased local land management, given that access to land for rural households is fundamental to sustained poverty alleviation.

"For over a year, Lao has been undergoing a process of reviewing and revising various policies and legislation pertaining to land and natural resources. What we've learned from countries across the world is that by ensuring local peoples' rights to the land they live and work on, we are opening the door for numerous other benefits for our country." said Dr. Souvanhpheng Bouphanouvong to the global audience at the Workshop on International Knowledge Sharing and Learning hosted by the National Assembly of Lao PDR in cooperation with the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) and RECOFTC-The Center for People and Forests in Vientiane, Lao PDR, on August 28-29, 2012. The workshop was inaugurated by Dr. Saysomphone Phomvihane, Vice President of the National Assembly.

"A new national land policy is a priority in Laos," Dr. Bouphanouvong added. "Land disputes are a top concern of Lao's multi-ethnic population, and as a nation, we cannot ignore this opportunity to address conflicts and alleviate poverty."

This historic commitment follows a recent change in the government organization responsible for land matters, which is now managed by the new Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE), though the Lao National Assembly plays a key role in balancing accelerated economic development and growth with ensuring that benefits from this process are distributed equitably across Lao PDR. It also responds to increasing demand from villagers in Lao PDR for a review of existing land laws to ensure development projects don't encroach on their land as they have in the past.

Today's commitment from the president of a key committee of the National Assembly signals that the Lao government is dedicated to working closely with civil society and community groups to develop and implement a new national strategy to grant significant land rights to the people who live in and around the nation's land and forest resources.

Mr. James Bampton, Program Director of RECOFTC noted how seriously the government is taking the land rights issue.

"We all heard Dr. Bouphanouvong say that what is needed now are policies and laws that end land disputes and enhance livelihoods in an equitable manner," said Mr. Bampton. "The high level people in this room suggest that this is now a true priority for Lao PDR. This is something millions of citizens have been waiting for, and hopefully, will soon benefit from."

Participants from more than eleven countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe shared their experiences, suggesting that granting greater control to local forest communities has been a key element in the turn-around accomplished by many of these countries, including China, South Korea, Mexico, Sweden, Nepal, Vietnam and Norway.

"Lao PDR is the latest in a series of countries around the world that are realizing the fundamental role of local control and improved forest governance in alleviating poverty, expanding legal and sustainable land management, and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation" said Arvind Khare, Executive Director of the Rights and Resources Group, the nonprofit coordinating mechanism of the Rights and Resources Initiative. "RRI's research and firsthand experience in other nations suggests that if Lao PDR does as it says it will do, it will slow the destruction of the nations' lands and unleash the entrepreneurial energy of an estimated 6 million people, who currently have only partial right to maintain and benefit from the use of their own land."

In her keynote address, Dr. Souvanhpheng Bouphanouvong said that "a significant shift in rethinking natural resource management and land tenure systems is already catalyzing a comprehensive revision of national forest policies and laws," and that the government would move immediately to take action in balancing between economic development, cultural and social progress, natural resources preservation, and environmental protection as well as political stability to achieve growth with equity.

"This represents a tipping point in our policies toward land rights and local management," said Dr. Akhom Tounalom, Vice Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, in his remarks to an audience comprised of researchers, high level government officials, policymakers, international experts on forestry and land reform, and community leaders from across Asia, Africa and Latin America. "Our current policies are not sufficient to ensure that we can meet our goals in terms of poverty eradication, economic growth, food security and climate change."

Source: Rights and Resources Initiative