Why a Lao Uplands Initiative now?

From 2011 to 2015, the Northern Uplands Development Programme (NUDP) supported a long series of consultations that involved a large range of uplands stakeholders and led to the Lao Uplands Development Strategy and Programme. This document was officially endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 2016 and then entered into action. As the NUDP comes to an end in December 2017, it is important to take stock of the lessons learnt over the decade since the last Lao Upland conferences that were held in Luang Prabang in 2004 (on Poverty Reduction and Shifting Cultivation Stabilization in the Uplands of Lao PDR) and in 2006 (on Sustainable Sloping Lands and Watershed Management). These two major events produced reference materials for upland development in the form of a sourcebook “Improving Livelihoods in the Uplands of the Lao PDR” published in 2005, and research proceedings in 2006. Since then many important discussions took place as part of the Sector Working Group on Agriculture and Rural Development that were supported by recent evidence from research and development initiatives.

As the Lao Uplands are under high pressure for change, there are competing visions for development of the Lao Uplands. On the one hand the development of agricultural production and other labour-intensive sectors is expected to lead to job creation and poverty reduction. In line with this vision, success of socio-economic development would be measured in terms of increased voice for people in development, and meaningful participation in local planning which can reduce malnutrition while sustaining income. Priorities would include bottom-up planning, food security from subsistence food production, agriculture and market development, local entrepreneurship, local value adding, and niche products unique to the Lao Uplands, to ensure sustainable development (UNDP, 2006). On the other hand, an emphasis on export of minerals, electricity, and raw agricultural products may use much less labour, and could pose threats to the environment and resource base for the rural poor. The potential for poverty reduction in such a vision would depend on public expenditure allocations, the strength of public financial management, and work force skills. In this vision poverty alleviation is seen as a result from economic growth and the provision of employment opportunities (UDS, 2016). Most recent analyses tend to show a mix of these two visions of economic development with a pending question about how to stir it towards a Green Growth.

Today, a consortium of projects, initiatives and institutions are involved in the Lao Uplands Initiative to (i) reflect on recent transformations and their impacts on upland populations, (ii) take stock of main lessons from past and on-going interventions, (iii) review policy options for a green growth and (iv) develop a road map towards Sustainable Development Goals. This process is expected to lead to a series of learning briefs that will become a reference for the next decade of implementation of the Lao Uplands Programme (UDP).