Laos sits at the intersection of four critical ecoregions: the Annamite Range Moist Forests, Indochina Dry Forests, Northern Indochina Subtropical Moist Forests, and the Mekong River and its catchment. The diversity in ecosystems and fauna are matched by the diversity in people (at least 48 ethnic groups), who are dependent on the country’s biodiversity resources, including agro-biodiversity.
Almost 80% of Laos is predominantly mountainous, with cultivated floodplains found along some reaches of the Mekong River and the larger tributaries. The country has an abundance of natural resources, namely water, mineral deposits and forests, which cover more than 40% of its total land surface.
With between 8,000 and 11,000 species of flowering plants, 166 species of reptiles and amphibians, 700 species of birds, 90 known species of bats, 500 species of fish, and 100 species of mammals, Laos is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, with on-going discoveries of new species. This great diversity of wildlife exists thanks to the Lao PDR’s abundance of forest and water resources, which cover the entire length of the country. These habitats are home to many rare and endangered species, some of which are now extinct in some parts of the world but are still found in the Lao PDR, such as: the Asian elephant, tiger, clouded leopard, leopard, gaur, saola, gibbon, Siamese crocodile, Irrawaddy dolphin, and the white winged duck. It is also home to one of the greatest genetic pools of glutinous rice varieties in Asia, and places in northern Laos, along with some parts of northern Myanmar and Yunnan province in China, are the origin of all tea trees in the world.
This range of biodiversity in our current global environment of diminishing species is a treasure and should be a source of power and strength for the Lao people and future generations. In the uplands particularly, people depend on this biologically diverse ecosystem for water, food, income, and other products that it provides - medicines, wild fruits, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, edible insects, amphibians, vegetables, material for constructing houses, and for making handicrafts and paper.
However, increasing economic development has caused the rapid decline and increased exploitation of natural capital such as wetlands, rivers, water resources, forest, forest resources and wildlife. Although Laos is still rich in natural resources, its biodiversity has been negatively impacted by developments, particularly resulting from private sector investment, including agricultural expansion, forest extraction, mining, fire, infrastructure, and hydropower dam construction.
In addition, human practices in the country are increasing exposure to wildlife, in two main ways: through legal and illegal trade, and through habitat degradation. In the last twenty years, China, Lao PDR, and other East Asian countries have experienced such epidemics as SARS, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI, H5N1 and H7N9), re-emergence of Schistosomiasis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The highest priority threats to biodiversity values include climate change, illegal logging, illegal wildlife trade, infrastructure development in and around protected areas, and expansion of agriculture and settlements.
In Lao PDR, climate change has a wide range of impacts on biodiversity at the ecosystem and species levels, including accelerated ecosystem succession, habitat degradation, change in the timing of key life events, changing habitat conditions, and increasing vulnerability to pests and natural disasters.
Lao PDR’s neighbors, especially China and Vietnam, are important consumers or are significant destinations for illegal wildlife products, including ivory, rhino horns, and tiger and bear parts. Lao PDR is a key transit country for trafficked wildlife and is one of Asia’s main conduits for the illegal wildlife trade from Africa. It also has rich, unique biodiversity of its own, including high-value tree species, freshwater turtles, orchids, Non-timber Forest Products (NTFPs), and medicinal plants, which are highly sought after by its neighboring countries. Large and medium-size mammal populations have been severely affected by the illegal wildlife trade, particularly from snaring. Elephant populations have undergone major declines throughout the country due to habitat loss, poaching for the illegal trade, and human wildlife conflict, with viable populations perhaps only in the Nam Poui and Nam Ha National Protected Areas (NPAs).
Overhunting and over-harvesting have contributed greatly to the loss of biodiversity, killing numerous species over recent years. There is a long tradition of hunting in Laos, as rural communities are dependent on hunting and harvesting of wild products to supplement seasonal rice harvests. Hunting for trade has a greater impact on wildlife than hunting for local subsistence and is often conducted by outsiders; even where locals are the main hunters, they are usually acting to supply externally initiated opportunities.
Hydropower projects and mining activities are being undertaken in a high percentage of protected areas with resulting impacts on biodiversity (habitat fragmentation, degradation, deforestation, increased access to resources, facilitation of illegal wildlife trade, and so on). In addition, hydropower dams involve major changes in hydrology that affect the behaviour and survival rates of fish populations.
Forest clearance for smallholder farming is a challenge reflecting a lack of more sustainable options. Shifting cultivation is the dominant cropping system in the uplands and mountains of Lao PDR, including inside the NPAs, usually at higher elevations. As many as 300,000 families are fully or partially engaged in shifting cultivation. Agricultural expansion is also linked to expanding settlements, particularly when they undergo rapid population growth.
Key policies and governance approach
Laos is a signatory to several international conventions relevant to biodiversity, including the Convention on Biological Diversity. In 2016, Laos updated its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2016–2025 (NBSAP) with a goal to “Enhance the role of biodiversity as a national heritage and as a substantial contributor to poverty alleviation, as well as sustainable and resilient economic growth.” Key objectives to support the goal are: (i) Institutionalize innovative multi stakeholder efforts to arrest the degradation and enhance conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity resources therein; (ii) Provide clear and enforceable guidance for the sustainable use of biodiversity resources to support poverty alleviation and sustainable economic growth; and (iii) Establish practical mechanisms for ensuring fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of biodiversity resources. The NBSAP also identifies 32 targets and 69 time-bound proposed actions.
In recent years, the Government has shown greater political will to the long-term sustainable management of biodiversity. Government commitment, focusing on forest conservation and protection, and combating illegal logging, fishing, and wildlife trade, has strengthened dramatically over the last few years. This increased commitment has yielded transformational natural resource legislation and policies. Key legislative accomplishments include (i) Prime Minister’s Order (PMO) 15 enacted on May 13, 2016; (ii) PMO 5 dated May 8, 2018; (iii) the revised Forestry Law enacted in 2019; and (iv) the Law on Water and Water Resources (2017). PMO 15 strengthened the strict management and inspection of timber harvesting across the country. This had an immediate nationwide impact on halting the flow of illegal timber across Laos’ porous international borders. PMO 5 further strengthened the strict management and inspection of endangered wild fauna and flora.
The national Protected Areas (PA) system of Laos has been the cornerstone of the country’s ongoing efforts to protect terrestrial biodiversity over the last 25 years. Initiated in October 1993, the country rapidly established an extensive system of conservation landscapes (IUCN 4 Category VI: landscapes), termed national protected areas (NPAs), which initially comprised 18 protected areas. By 2018, this had reached a total of 23 preserves, covering 3.8 million ha, or 15.1% of the total area of the country, according to the country’s NBSAP. In 2018, the Government placed the protected area system under the direct management of the Department of Forestry.
In 2019, Laos re-designated some NPAs, establishing Nakai-nam theun National Park and Nam et-Phou louey National Park, the nation’s first two national parks, in accordance with Category II 5 of the IUCN Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Categories. Hin Nam No, which is the preeminent example of Indo-Chinese karst, became the country’s third national park in January 2019 and is short-listed by UNESCO to become the nation’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition, in 2021, the government of Lao PDR confirmed the nomination of the Hin Nam No to the IUCN Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas. These re-designations promote increased government commitment to these sites in terms of human and financial resources and raise the profile to both international and national visitors.
In addition, Lao PDR’s National Green Growth Strategy 2030 (2019) charted a more sustainable development path that prioritizes Nature-based Tourism, sustainable forestry, and downstream industries as important growth drivers for the next five-year NSEDP and beyond.
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
The decline of natural resources results from strategic land use decisions at the macro level as well as day to day micro (or household) level decisions. Rural poverty causes the over extraction and unsustainable use of forests, soils, water bodies, and aquatic resources by communities who depend directly on these resources. While Laos has made remarkable progress in reducing the poverty incidence, high poverty incidence persists in the mountainous areas and the poverty rates among all ethnic groups (except the Lao Tai) are higher than the national average.
In Laos, the implementation of MEAs and Conventions have met varying levels of success dependent upon the level of resources provided and the level of commitment given by National Focal Points. For example, the Ramsar Convention coordinated through the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion at MoNRE has enjoyed relative success since its ratification in 2010. Since this time, two wetlands sites have been designated and on-going support towards implementation has been provided by IUCN and several donors including the Government of Finland, GEF and KFW (German Development Bank). In general, challenges related to implementation are partly due to resources available for on-going implementation, capacity and knowledge of National Focal Points and responsible government agencies, and most importantly, coordination between stakeholders. Enhancing the coordinated implementation of MEAs and Conventions can greatly support achieving the strategies and targets laid out within the NBSAP 2016-2020.
In Laos today, there is a better understanding of the current challenges on biodiversity conservation; what can be done about them; and the “win-win” approaches that may be pursued to ensure both conservation and economic growth. However, a key challenge for the NBSAP is to back up knowledge with scientific evidence. The value of resources must be quantified, and there is a need to generate and communicate “evidence-based knowledge” in economic decision-making processes at all levels (national and local), and in all key sectors (from agriculture to infrastructure). Equally important to knowledge generation is how to communicate key biodiversity issues to key stakeholders.
Another challenge is financing biodiversity conservation. Barriers include inadequate information on the financial requirements for biodiversity conservation in protected areas, inadequate guidelines, inadequate accounting and actual extraction of funds, and a large number of agencies dependent on available funds meaning that a small amount of funds goes to protected area management. A resource mobilization strategy needs to be developed to efficiently use financing. Both conventional (ODA and government) and innovative financing (PES, REDD+, CC, etc.) must be pursued. Another source of resources would be the private sector itself, specifically around land use rights, plantation development, and land concessions. If the private sector is both mandated and motivated to practice sustainable land management, coupled with ethical business practices (compensation, labour arrangements, etc.), this could potentially place large areas of land under ecologically sound management. But, the way to do so is to demonstrate that sustainable land management means good business – meaning they can either reduce costs of production, or increase yields and incomes.
Initiatives and Development Plans
In 2009, the Laos government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation entered into a bilateral agreement for the implementation of "The Agro-Biodiversity Initiative (TABI)" in upland Laos. The initiative sought to conserve, enhance, manage, and sustainably utilize the biological diversity found in upland farming landscapes to improve the livelihoods of farming families in the region. This initial agreement grew into a 10-year commitment over three phases and came to an end in 2020.
Efforts were notably successful, and a mid-term review of the programme found that – despite difficulty in getting accurate data – at least 8,400 households had seen substantial increases in income. In addition, government and local staff were trained in technical aspects of agro-biodiversity and helped to raise awareness of the many options available to farmers. Skills manuals were developed providing blueprints for new livelihood activities including handicrafts which effectively take advantage of the resources becoming available through the programme. It also instilled a sense of pride among the farmers that local indigenous products are promoted and in demand in the market.
In its final year, the data generated through TABI – including success stories and lessons learned – can continue to be accessed and used by others such as governments, donors, and communities through the Pha Khao Lao Agro-Biodiversity Resource Platform. The platform seeks to engage a broader cross-section of society in the mission to improve rural agro-biodiversity by making this data accessible in a fun and interesting way. In stimulating a market for agrobiodiversity products, the platform hopes to create an incentive to protect Laos’s many unique natural resources and its rich heritage. In addition, TABI also produced a book that mixes novel-style story-telling with facts from the project in a creative tapestry of people, change, challenges and success. Living Landscapes: Embracing Biodiversity in Northern Laos is not an evaluation or assessment of TABI’s performance bur rather “a sincere effort to learn from the work that TABI did along with a wide range of partners and stakeholders over its 10-year journey”.
Priorities identified by the World Bank’s Lao Biodiversity : A Priority for Resilient Green Growth Policy Note (2020):
- Policies and legislation should be introduced to identify and mitigate the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. This might include: (i) increasing efforts to conserve areas rich in wildlife diversity by reducing human activity; (ii) strengthening illegal wildlife trade law enforcement through better cooperation among concerned law enforcement agencies and protected area staff, and tools to effectively curb illegal trade and regulate legal wildlife trade, and (iii) creating or improving wildlife handling, transportation, and isolation facilities, wildlife breeding and rescue facilities, and (iv) the markets should be better regulated and controlled.
- The Government could consider the formation of a Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to help ensure staffing levels could become adequate for the national park and protected area system.
- Regulations and procedures for tourism concessions in protected areas and other natural landscapes would benefit from clear steps and incentives for businesses to invest in nature-based tourism.
- To help protect biodiversity in village-use forests and reduce pressure on sensitive habitats and ecosystems, a regulation and implementing procedures on village forest management could be formulated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to clarify the roles at the national, provincial, and district levels in supporting decentralized “village forest management.”
- Similarly, clarification of roles and responsibilities is needed for government agencies on issuing commercial plantation concessions that require demonstrable commitment to environmental and social sustainability principles.
- Continue to educate enforcement agencies and public on the links between the illegal wildlife trade and zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, and the need to halt this trade throughout the country.
- Continue to implement outreach in buffer zone villages in and around protected areas and other forest-dependent villages on biodiversity conservation, the illegal wildlife trade and zoonotic disease, and natural solutions to climate change.
- Empower ethnic groups to conserve and utilize their traditional ecological knowledge in enhancing agrobiodiversity and protected area management.
- Promote research on biodiversity by relevant government research institutes, Lao universities, and concerned non-governmental organizations.
- Mainstream biodiversity into education and learning.
- Develop an environmental education strategy, building on the “Environmental Education and Awareness Vision for 2030, National Strategy for 2018–2025, and Mission for 2018–2020.”
- Invest in building institutional capabilities in protected area management, village forest management, and interagency law enforcement.
- Continue to strengthen multi-agency law enforcement actions to disrupt the illegal timber and wildlife trade in line with Prime Minister Orders 15 and 5 and the 2019 Forestry Law.
- Investments are needed in the environmental police, and other concerned law enforcement agencies.
- Investments in the national park and protected area system could be strengthened by diversifying revenue into each reserve, including the establishment of sustainably managed private conservation and nature based tourism concessions.
- Develop village forest management outside protected areas to help operationalize good working relationships between provincial and district offices and villages in terms of allocating management responsibilities, protecting village forests, and enhancing sustainable village livelihoods and biodiversity assets.
- Promote only socially and environmentally sustainable commercial plantation investment in appropriate, degraded land outside conservation forests and other preserves, to reduce pressure on natural forest, protected areas, and wildlife.
- Build a strategic investment platform for coordinating actions on forest landscapes would be valuable at the national and sub-national levels to inform investment decision making and help manage trade-offs and identify mutual opportunities among diverse activities and projects in the landscape.
 World Bank. 2020. Lao Biodiversity : A Priority for Resilient Green Growth. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/34131 License: CC BY 3.0
 [Online]. Available: https://www.niras.com/projects/the-agro-biodiversity-initiative-laos/.
 [Online]. Available: https://www.phakhaolao.la/en.
 Rodericks, Andrea. (2020). Living Landscapes: Embracing Agro-Biodiversity in Northern Laos. National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI). Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Vientiane, Lao PDR.
 World Bank. 2020. Lao Biodiversity : A Priority for Resilient Green Growth. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/34110 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO