Changing Lao Uplands

The uplands of Lao PDR are defined as an area of multi-dimensional marginality, characterised by remoteness, diverse ethnicity, language, and culture, with a comparatively high level of poverty, and livelihoods dominated by pockets of food insecurity (Uplands Development Strategy 2016-2025). Covering about 70 percent of the country territory, the Lao Uplands are characterized by slopes greater than 20 percent, elevation above 200 m.a.s.l., rugged dissected terrain and narrow valleys. Traditionally, economic development has focused on subsistence farming and livestock, with 90 percent of upland households being dependent on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihood.

But in the last decades, the Lao Uplands have gone through unprecedented growth. They changed from a remote and economically backward area to a region with increasing access to regional markets, infrastructure and basic services. Upland livelihoods are being transformed from subsistence-based to market-oriented. The main underlying factors are “policy push” from government, aimed at reducing poverty and stabilizing livelihood systems (land allocation, focal area development); and, “market pull” from increased regional demand for Lao agriculture products. Specific Government of Lao PDR (GoL) policies contribute to the intensification of agriculture through the promotion of land-based foreign direct investment (FDI) in upland areas; and, improved access to regional markets.

These recent changes also had negative consequences on:

  • livelihoods with e.g. pressures put on villagers to make land available for investment and agriculture development or difficulties for the poor to adapt to rapid changes and to enter into commercial activities, and
  • landscapes with e.g. unsustainable land use practices, land degradation and deforestation that lead to depletion of natural resources and erosion of soils and biodiversity.

The overarching question the Lao Uplands Initiative will address is therefore:

Are the Lao Uplands on the right path… towards a sustainable development?

This question will be broken down into more specific questions and/or burning issues that will emerge during the consultation process. They will point to the drivers of the recent changes, and their socioeconomic and environmental impacts; they will question land tenure security and capacity of upland people to seize economic opportunities; they may propose policy instruments and intervention mechanisms that should be mobilized to put the Lao Uplands on the pathway towards sustainable development.