Laos suffers from a number of environmental problems, the most important of which are related to deforestation. Expanding commercial exploitation of the forests, plans for additional hydroelectric facilities, foreign demand for wild animals and nonwood forest products for food and traditional medicines, and a growing population put increasing pressure on the forests. Deforestation not only destroyed at least 150,000 to 160,000 hectares of valuable forest annually in the 1980s, but also caused erosion--leading to siltation of reservoirs, navigation channels, and irrigation systems downstream--and reduced groundwater levels. The practice of swidden cultivation not only contributes greatly to deforestation, but, in 1987, also made Laos one of eleven countries in the world that together were responsible for over 80 percent of net world carbon emissions amounting to a per capita emission of ten tons annually, compared with the world average of 1.17 tons per capita. Further, during the Second Indochina War (1954-75), Laos was heavily bombed and left with tons of unexploded ordnance and bomb craters that ultimately altered the local ecology.
The government's desire to preserve valuable hardwoods for commercial extraction and to protect the forest environment, as well as international concern about environmental degradation and the loss of many wildlife species unique to Laos, have motivated efforts to prohibit swidden cultivation throughout the country. This policy has a significant effect on the livelihoods of upland villagers dependent on swidden cultivation of rice. Traditional patterns of village livelihood relied on forest products as a food reserve during years of poor rice harvest and as a regular source of fruits and vegetables. By the 1990s, however, these gathering systems were breaking down in many areas. The government has restricted the clearing of forestland for swidden cropping since the late 1980s and is attempting to resettle upland swidden farming villages in lowland locations where paddy rice cultivation is possible. However, both the government's inability to ensure compliance with the measures and the attraction of Thai money for forest products inhibits implementation of the restrictions.
Although a lack of environmental planning, surveys, and legislation diminishes the likelihood of substantial improvement of the environment in the near future, a number of decrees were issued to encourage environmental protection. These decrees include general principles for protecting forestland; prohibitions on cutting certain tree species; regulations on hunting, fishing, and the use of fire during the dry season; and regulations on the management and protection of forestland, wildlife, and fish. The use of manure and compost encouraged to help rejuvenate soil. Burning also encourages many forms of forest growth.
The government's commitment to environmental protection is affirmed in the constitution and in its policy of finding new occupations for swidden cultivators. In 1991 the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry established a land use program under the National Forest Resource Conservation and Development Strategy. The program reserves 17.0 million hectares, including 9.6 million hectares for forest protection, 2.4 million hectares for wildlife reserves and national parks, and 5.0 million hectares for production. However, the commitment is mainly on paper: the highest priority park--Nam Theun--will be flooded by a hydroelectric dam by 2000.
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