Laos has a great variety of tropical forest ecosystems distributed over mountains, plateaus and plains. Laos designates three main forest categories which are owned by the State and under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s (MAF) mandate. These are: Production Forest Areas, Conservation Forest Areas, and Protection Forest Areas.
Forest is valuable, but deforestation rates are high and about 80% of the country’s forests are degraded or highly degraded. Forest degradation results in the release of greenhouse gasses and the loss of economic, ecological and sociocultural functions, which negatively impacts rural livelihoods. Once degraded, forests become vulnerable to permanent conversion to agriculture given that national policy allows degraded forestland to be allocated for non-forest purposes.
Data from the National Forest Inventory (2018) found that between 2005 and 2015, forest cover in Production Forest Areas fell by 4.2%, in Protection Forest Areas by 3.3%, and Conservation Forest Areas by 1.8%. Overall, forest cover fell by 0.36% per year and from 60.9% in 2000 to 58% in 2015.
Deforestation is mainly driven by the expansion of agriculture and clearing for hydropower projects, mining sites and other infrastructure development. Unsustainable timber extraction, shifting cultivation, and harvesting of non-timber forest products has caused forest degradation. Illegal logging and cross-border trade were widespread until recently and contributed to both deforestation and degradation.
In 2015, Laos’ Department of Forestry estimated the national planted forests area at 446,000 hectares, composed mainly of rubber, eucalyptus and acacia, teak, and agarwood. Rubber established for latex production comprised over half of the area.
Laos aims to achieve 70% forest cover by 2020. To reach this target, the government is encouraging the private sector to establish tree plantations such as rubber, agar wood, teak and eucalyptus, and is promoting sustainable forest management and payment for ecosystem services. An enabling regulatory environment is being fostered through national strategies including the ‘National Socio-economic Development Plan 2016-2020’, the ‘Forestry Strategy’ and the ‘National Green Growth Strategy 2019-2030’.
The National Socio-economic Development Plan envisions that increased forest cover will help to reduce poverty, create jobs and livelihoods, support local industry and expand participatory sustainable forest management and forest restoration, while also helping to meet the Lao Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement on climate change.