GRET has been active in Laos on a regular basis since 2004, and opened a permanent branch office there in 2009. It is developing acknowledged expertise in four key areas: access to drinking water, health insurance, ecotourism, and the bamboo sector. It is conducting activities in six of the country’s 17 provinces. Laos is slated to host the next Asia-Europe Meetings summit in November. GRET is examining the development challenges for a country with a liberal economy, a source of high stakes for emerging civil society.
Between Economic Stakes and Development Issues
Adhesion to the ASEAN free trade zone, accession to the WTO in 2013, attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, and leaving the LDC categories by 2020: the targets set by Laos’ 7th five-year socioeconomic development plan confirm the choice of an open economy integrated in the region and the world. The country is betting on its strategic position and natural resources that it is negotiating by granting concessions to mines, land, and water resources. A small, under-populated (six million people) landlocked country, Laos is an attractive prospect for investors, particularly neighboring countries (Vietnam and China). An illustration of this ambition, Laos will host the 9th Asia-Europe Meetings (ASEM) in early November with the slogan, Friends for Peace, Partners for Prosperity. But this economic rise is also accompanied by inequalities, injustices and considerable risks. Laos, which wants to become the ‘battery of Southeast Asia,’ is at risk of endangering its people’s fishing resources and food security. The concessions and the promotion of ‘contract farming’—a contractual system between agrifood companies and farmers sometimes mandated by the local authorities—present a high risk of weakening and dispossessing villagers. Access to and consolidation of villagers’ rights to land and natural resources are considerable challenges.
Voices are being raised in the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (PPRL) and government to diversify the economy, education the population, and strengthen food production. Lao non-profit associations (NPAs) are only now beginning to be legally recognized, thanks to a decree in 2009: at the end of 2011, 10 NPAs had been recognized and 70 applications were waiting. The NGO platform Lao Issue Working Group (LIWG) is conducting advocacy actions, notably on land issues, with assistance from GRET (see the position paper ). A few days before the ASEM, emerging civil society will speak during the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), which has its own slogan: People’s Solidarity against Poverty and for Sustainable Development: Challenging Unjust and Unequal Development, Building States of Citizens for Citizens. Four topics will structure the discussions: universal social protection and access to essential services; food security and sustainable land and natural resource management; sustainable energy production and use; and fair work and livelihoods for all. GRET is active in the field on several of these major issues.
Bamboo and Tourism: Key Sectors for Fair Economic Development
While 80% of the population depends on forest products (food, energy, crafts), forests now cover only 40% of the country compared to 70% in 1940. At fault: the growth of concessions, agro-industrial plantations and slash-and-burn farming, which persist because of a lack of alternatives offered to rural communities who are progressively losing their rights to forests and land. Yet, sustainably managed and coordinated with stable commercial value chains, natural forests are a lasting source of income for villagers. GRET is supporting the implementation of the Houaphan Province bamboo sector development strategy in 40 villages in three districts. It is testing a participatory method to elaborate land use plans (LUPs), and nine villages now have forest management plans (FMPs) drawn up on natural bamboo forests (1,400 ha and 475 households). These plans are mandatory for villagers to be able to exploit the forests. Household incomes are diversifying and increasing, and natural resources are being preserved: for instance, in 2011, 22 handicraft or furniture producers’ groups, bringing together 350 households, sold their products for 35,000 euros.
The tourism sector is booming in Laos, with 2.5 million tourists—mainly from the Asia Pacific zone—and 380 million dollars in revenues in 2010. This boom, however, comes with risks in regard to the impact on natural resources and people. Since 2010, GRET has been helping local public and private actors and rural communities in Khamouanne Province define and implement a strategy to develop fair, solidarity-based tourism involving rural communities in the management of tourism sites, and encouraging the development of economic activities. In 2012, GRET finalized a joint preservation, development and management plan for the tourism site of Konglor cave, involving the villages of Konglor and Natane. A development fund for tourism in the village of Natane offers women loans to launch income-generating activities (weaving, basket weaving, bicycle rental).
Access to Water and Health: Developing Essential Services for Populations
Half of the urban and semi-rural population has access to drinking water. To reach the 80% target in the MDGs, the Lao authorities are encouraging the establishment of ‘public-private partnerships’ (PPPs) in small and medium-sized cities with local operators invited to help finance water service infrastructures and management. Between 2005 and 2011, under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, GRET tested appropriate PPP schemes in the provinces of Vientiane and Bolikhamxay, and made tools to facilitate funding, improve management and consolidate regulation of drinking water services available to public actors and private enterprises (MIREP project). At the end of 2011, 16,500 individuals in 32 villages had access to drinking water thanks to seven mini-networks managed by concession holders (length 25 years). In the medium term, 33,000 people will be served. In 2012, GRET and the public authorities are extending the project to 10 additional sites in order to reach a critical mass capable of better influencing national public policy. Since 2009, GRET has also provided the Vientiane water company with technical assistance, with the dual goal of improving water service governance and extending coverage in the municipality of Vientiane (Madevie project).
10% of the population has social health protection, mainly in the formal sector (civil servants and private sector employees). Since 2008, GRET has been providing the Lao Ministry of Health with support for the development of a health insurance system accessible to people in the informal sector. It is testing a Community-Based Health Insurance (CBHI) approach, which consists of offering households free primary and hospital care in their district and province, in exchange for the payment of a voluntary premium of $US7 per person per year. In 2012, the health insurance service is operational in five districts of Savannaketh Province, and covers 35,000 people. In the municipality of Vientiane, 5,500 members are covered. GRET is now supporting the provincial health authorities’ efforts to manage and extend the CBHI scheme to other districts.
More information on GRET’s activities in Laos:
- on the health microinsurance project
- on the ecotourism project
- on the MIREP project
- on the Madévie project
- on the bamboo project