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Land-Tenure Policy, Deforestation, and Agricultural Development in Lao PDR: the Case of the Vientiane Plain

Silinthone Sacklokham et Marc Dufumier
p. 189-207

Texte intégral

  • 1 Doctoral thesis defended in 2003 by S. Sacklokham at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grigno (...)

1Mountainous, land-locked and sparsely populated (23 inhabitants/sq. km), Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is somewhat of an exception in South-East Asia. It is the only country in the region where forest cover—a total of some 11 million hectares—dominates proportionally the majority of Laotian territory, accounting for roughly 47% of total surface area (IUCN 1996). However, as a result of increasing liberalization of the country’s economy and the expansion of road networks, deforestation is steadily increasing to the point where it is causing concern among government authorities and some United Nations agencies. In order to bring into check this evolution, the government has taken measures aimed at resettling mountain populations in plains and valleys, allotting them arable lands for farming, thus limiting the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture. Although these measures have benefited from the conceptual, financial and logistic assistance of numerous international institutions, they do not appear to have had the intended results. Indeed, they are even starting to be the object of lively controversies. This article aims to shed light on the terms of this debate by presenting the results of research conducted on the Vientiane Plain, at the foot of Phou Khao Khouay, on the left bank of Nam Ngum1 (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Zone of Study in the Vientiane Plain

Fig. 1: Zone of Study in the Vientiane Plain

Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, 1996.

Interventionist Land-Tenure Policy in a Context of Economic Transition

  • 2 It is interesting to remark that, among the conditions imposed on Cambodia when becoming a member o (...)

2Following the fall of the monarchic regime in December 1975 and after only a few years of efforts to promote collective agriculture and control commercial activities in both national and international markets, the government of Lao PDR set about establishing a “New Economic Mechanism” to promote development within the framework of a market economy. The country became a member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 1998 and expects to soon join the World Trade Organization (WTO).2

3Lao PDR’s shift towards a market economy has not stopped governmental authorities from being very interventionist with regard to agricultural development. National agricultural policy has always had the explicit objectives to assure the country’s food self-sufficiency and encourage production of certain commodities for export, in order to obtain the capital and currency necessary to finance new sectors of activity, while always taking care to prevent the deterioration of the productive potentialities of the environment.

4Concerned with preserving the country’s forests and natural resources, the government of Lao PDR has in recent years endeavored to dissuade farmers from practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. In the mountain regions where population density appears too high, authorities fear a drastic reduction in the duration and surface area of tree regrowth. The concern is that rates of humus content in the soil can no longer maintain their previous levels due to lack of sufficient tree biomass. The effect is an overall drop in soil fertility and greater exposure to erosive agents. The government is therefore trying to prohibit clear-cutting in forest and mountainous regions and is making an effort to promote agricultural production systems that are less extensive and more permanent, such as flooded rice cultivation, perennial crops, annual crops in rotation with very short-term fallow periods, in the alluvial plains and valley bottoms.

5In order to ensure the food security of an ever-expanding population, the government is promoting in the seven largest paddy-producing plains cropping systems that are increasingly intensive in labor and chemical inputs (fertilizer and phytosanitary products). These systems are inspired by what is usually called the “green revolution,” which has had positive effects on yields throughout the South-East Asian region. Farmers are encouraged to develop leveled bunded rice paddies so that the presence of a relatively deep water bed enables them to transplant seedlings, thus enabling them to better compete with weeds. Oftentimes with the financial backing of international cooperation agencies, the government authorities undertake hydro-agricultural infrastructures in order to irrigate the paddies, thus making it possible to yield two annual crops of rice. This intensification of paddy production should, they say, ensure employment and increased income to a greater number of families living on the plains.

6Authorities have proceeded to displace populations dispersed throughout the most isolated mountainous regions and resettle them in flatter, more easily accessible regions that are more conducive to the transplantation of rice in submerged rice fields. The resettlements were first justified by the need to distance farmers from forests, to avoid any further slash-and-burn practices. But they are also very much linked to the anti-drug programs favored by the United States and so many international donors. In effect, mountain populations that were accustomed to growing poppies for their personal opium consumption for medical (analgesic) use, have started to cultivate it as a cash crop, given the comparative advantages that high altitude regions offer for its production. Let us remember that the transformation of the opium poppy into a cash crop goes back to French government-controlled opium enterprise that was created when the Kingdom of Laos was under a protectorate regime. But this era is now past; today, the production and commercialization of opium is widely condemned by the “international community” and the government of Lao PDR is under pressure to stop it.

7Under the monarchy, the King was considered the distinguished owner of the entire territory. Peasants’ land tenure rights were temporary, directly dependent on the land’s cultivation (Suryadhay 1970). Any land left fallow for more than three years could change ownership. In practice, however, possession of paddies and gardens became almost permanent, and it was possible to bequeath land to one’s heirs. Several acts of land sale and purchase were even formally registered in the most populous peripheral urban regions. As a general rule, land management at a local level remained flexible and pragmatic, mainly due to the low population density and “land pressure” (Taillard 1974).

8Soon after the proclamation of the Republic, authorities from the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party quickly declared the government’s ownership of the national territory. Private property was made illegal. The government encouraged the creation of “agricultural production cooperatives,” but did not abolish the ownership rights of families who had inherited land. As a result, there was not a true collectivization of arable lands. Rather, the government engaged in collecting a land tax, payable in kind (paddy), for each plot (Dufumier 1980). Because of the poor results obtained by governmental commerce and the majority of production “cooperatives,” the government quickly adopted a more liberal economic policy and in the end recognized private ownership of land.

  • 3 Decree of the Prime Minister of LPDR n° 99 / PM, published in 1992.

9After many delays, the government of Lao PDR finally undertook a significant reform of land legislation and implemented a vast “land allocation program” with the objective of encouraging peasants to invest in their farms, without fear of losing them. The 1992 Decree on Land states “the land is the property of the national community, represented by the State of Lao PDR” but stipulates “the Lao citizen benefits of the right of possession and use of land, as well as the right to transfer by legal inheritance, assignment, lease, sale and purchase, this right of possession and use of land.” There is a limit to the surface area allowed, established according to the number of workers in the family: 1 hectare of paddy, 3 hectares of orchards and 15 hectares of pasture per laborer. This same decree3 declares that in the case of land left fallow for more than three years, possession is automatically forfeited to the State, represented by “village committees.” Since 1993, land tax has had to be paid in cash; regular payment of this tax gives the owner the right to register the parcel with the State, while non-payment for three years or more can theoretically result in forfeiting possession.

  • 4 Decrees of the Prime Minister of LPDR n° 169/PM from 3/11/93 and n° 186/PM from 12/10/94.

10Following a pilot phase in the Louang Phrabang and Sayaboury provinces, the “land allocation program” was implemented across the country in 19944but is still not completed today. This program aims to divide up village territory into different areas or land categories whose use and exploitation are theoretically different. The different zones are:

  • Permanently occupied lands, reserved for constructions as well as paddies, gardens and orchards: their owners can ask to register these lands;

  • Lands that are used only for annual crops and can periodically be left uncultivated: these lands may be subject to reallocation depending on the labor capacity of the family exploiting them;

  • Lands for commercial use that can be attributed to families and businesses, private or public, to plant and maintain perennial crops;

  • Village land reserves to be allocated gradually to young households over time as population density increases;

  • Forest lands.

11These forest land areas are categorized into five types:

  • Protection Forests, designated for preservation, where all exploitation is strictly prohibited;

  • Conservation Forests, designated for the protection of watershed sources, where only hunting and gathering is allowed;

  • Production Forests, where it is possible to cut trees and to hunt and gather;

  • Regeneration Forests, where regeneration must take place through spontaneous regrowth or plantation in prescribed form;

  • Degraded Forest Lands, that serve as village land reserves to be assigned to peasant families in accordance with their needs.

12On the basis of this zoning and ceilings set by the law, families are usually permanently assigned land plots from several of these categories. They can then determine themselves how to exploit them, provided they do not leave them abandoned for more than three consecutive years.

13In this way, the government hopes to keep in check the deforestation process and promote more intensive forms of agriculture in Lao PDR. Overall, these government interventions designed to stymie clear cutting and increase agricultural outputs appear to be based on the following three assumptions:

  • Slash-and-burn shifting agriculture that continues to be practiced by mountain populations is the main cause of deforestation, due to the increasing number of new clearings that emerge each year as a result.

  • Alluvial plains and valley bottoms are the regions that have a comparative advantage for developing cropping and animal raising systems that are non-shifting, intensive, economically viable in the long term and environmentally-friendly (sustainable agriculture).

  • Allocation of permanent land tenure titles to farmers is a requisite condition for them to see it in their interest to make the investments necessary to this type of agriculture.

14However, the reality has often proved to be quite different, as we will see in the example of the Vientiane Plain. In this context of rapid population growth, the land allocation program has come up against many difficulties and has not had strictly favorable consequences on agricultural intensification.

Demographic Growth and Competition for Farm Lands in Plains Regions

  • 5 For many years, Phou Khao Khouay was a refuge for fighters of the Lao Patriotic Front and the armed (...)
  • 6 Around 520 families (3,000 inhabitants) in an area of 175 Sq. km.

15Plains account for 20% of Laotian territory and are home to more than two-thirds of the population; their population density is hence far higher than the average. Located in the immediate surroundings of the capital, the Vientiane Plain, with its 152 inhabitants per square kilometer in 2000, is no exception. The region nevertheless suffered from a drastic drop in population during the first half of the 19th century, after the Siamese deported almost its entire population following the defeat of Kind Chao Anou in 1828. Re-population of the plain began only much later, around 1870, with the arrival of Phouan (Taï Kadai) peasants from the Xieng Khouang plateau and their gradual settlement on the ridges of the banks of the Nam Ngum River. The trend continued with the arrival of immigrants from North-East Thailand during the 20th century. Poor peasants from the right bank of the Mekong—much more densely populated than the left bank—came in search of arable lands. The zone located between the foot of Phou Khao Khouay and the left bank of the Nam Ngum was also subject to this demographic growth. However, because of its relative isolation and the insecurity that prevailed there during the liberation war,5 population growth appears to have been notably slower there than on the rest of the plain. Just before liberation in 1975, population density in the zone was still less than 18 inhabitants per square kilometer.6

  • 7 The majority of farmers came with buffalos and tillage tools that could be hitched to the animals. (...)
  • 8 Definitive uprooting of plots, construction of bunds and leveling of rice fields could only be done (...)

16Farmers accustomed to flooded rice production techniques found it easy to apply their altogether conventional methods to the left bank of the Nam Ngum and the piedmont of Phou Khao Khouay. To establish their communities on the ridges of the Nam Ngum, the first settlers permanently cleared the areas where they would build their villages, gardens and orchards. The lands near the embankment closest to the village were fertilized regularly by alluvium from the river, and corn, vegetables and other crops with short cycles could be cultivated every year, once the water level receded. The flooded areas situated on the banks near the distributaries of the Nam Ngum were probably developed into rice fields little by little with the use of manual tools and traditional plows.7 Because this type of work investment is so slow to produce results,8 farmers, to nourish themselves properly, had to practice rain-fed rice production on slash-and-burned pans in dense forests situated on former alluvial terraces. The buffalos and steers that were used as draft animals (to plow, harrow, pull carts, etc.) were brought to fallow grassy lands during the rainy season and grazed freely on the stubble in the rice fields after harvest.

17Until 1975, farmers could freely choose plots to cultivate in forest areas. The only rule was that village chiefs had to be consulted to verify that the plot had not been cleared in the previous three years. Plots on which slash-and-burn was practiced usually returned to woody fallow lands after being cultivated for only two or three years; but those located in thalwegs or close to them were gradually uprooted and turned into rice fields. Because there were still lands available to young families for clearing, and given that agricultural equipment was more or less the same for all farmers, social differences within the peasant population remained minimal (Condominas & Gaudillot 2000). The main differences came from the number of heads in one’s herd that had access to open range lands. The poorest families were those whose head of household had become an opium addict and thus was not able to work enough land to feed all the children.

18Once all of the floodable and hydromorphic lands within the village territory had been turned into rice fields, young households looking for new lands to cultivate rice began to leave their birth lands and establish new villages further away from the Nam Ngum, closer to the Phou Khao Khouay. These local migrations took place before the dense forest areas had started to degrade as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture. Thus in the 1970s, it was still possible to observe large forest stands in the areas separating the various village territories.

Fig. 2: Gradual Settlement of Villages in the 20th Century

Fig. 2: Gradual Settlement of Villages in the 20th Century

19Migratory movements and the agrarian colonization of unoccupied lands accelerated after the founding of the Republic. When peace returned, the region saw an exponential increase in its population density for two main reasons:

  • War veterans and families that had fled the region during the war promptly returned to their home villages to cultivate lands;

    • 9 Especially in the Saysomboune special zone, situated near the buttress of the Xieng Khouang plateau

    Starting in 1985, the government systematically would resettle migrant populations in the region: peasants fleeing the last pockets of insecurity in the country9 and mountain populations who had been displaced to the plain region, in an effort to stop all slash-and-burn practices in the protected forest areas.

Fig. 3: Evolution of Population Density

Fig. 3: Evolution of Population Density

20The new settlers did not always have access to land that could be transformed into paddies and were usually attributed upland areas. Initially, they cultivated annual crops on slash-and-burn, but due to increasing population density and the new land-use legislation, it was no longer possible to leave plots fallow for more than three consecutive years. More and more, they had to cultivate the same plots over and over again, resulting in increased sodding and weediness. The “land allocation program” implemented by district authorities with support from “village committees” only speeded up this phenomenon. By granting permanent ownership rights for relatively small surface areas (about one hectare per family), stipulating that these rights could be lost if fallow periods exceeded three years, and prohibiting the clearing of protected lands, the new land use laws forced farmers to increase the number of crop cycles planted on each plot. The clearing caused by slash-and-burn practices and the shortened fallow duration were thus only a prelude to what followed: practically year-round cultivation, making tree, even bush re-growth impossible.

21The actual conditions under which the “land allocation program” is applied are often very different from those envisioned in the Prime Ministerial decree. The committees in charge of the program often lacked the time and means to do their work effectively. Frequently, distinguishing one land use category from the other was difficult, especially given that the definitions of some were relatively unclear. How could they clearly distinguish grazing lands from lands reserved for annual crops or tree plantations, when ruminants usually graze all kinds of fallow lands that grow spontaneously between slash-and-burn crop cycles? Only rice fields and permanent orchards were not problematic to classify. And because they could not measure the plots themselves, committee members often took the farmers for their word. In order to avoid paying high land taxes, farmers almost systematically declared less area than they had.

  • 10 Party members and committee members who were aware of the government’s intentions.
  • 11 Since the country has opened up to international markets, families whose members took refuge abroad (...)

22In practice, the descendants of the first families who settled the region often tried to limit the allotment of lands to newcomers. Knowing full well that pasture lands and plots where perennials were cultivated could not be reallocated, some of the village elites—inevitably the insiders10—managed to anticipate the program’s implementation and quickly appropriated lands that had previously been undivided, by fencing in permanent prairies, wood grasslands and teak and eucalyptus plantations. The committees in charge of the “land allocation program” would then register these pastures and plantations, thus making official the relatively unequal distribution of land. Latecomers were generally only able to register the smallest plots and some were not even able to lay claim to rice fields. Nevertheless, a few new settlers from the mountain areas had enough capital to purchase lands from some of the older families.11

  • 12 From 83 to 185 US $/hectare, depending on the price of wood (Sacklokham 2003).

23These purchases were made possible due to the sudden development of a veritable real estate market. In theory, a 1997 decree authorizes the sale or purchase only of lands that were part of the land allocation program. But many villagers get around this restriction by transferring non-authorized lands under the guise of a loan contract. The seller pretends to borrow money corresponding to the amount of the sale and uses the land as a guarantee. The sale of the land is implicitly allowed when the new owner pays the land tax. Sellers are rarely among the poor; the majority are farmers who use the capital from the sale to purchase new equipment for their land: power tillers, motor-operated rice threshers, paddy husking units, etc. However, the real cause for concern is the fact that buyers are often city-dwellers investing in real estate out of speculation. Indeed, in a region that is relatively close to the capital city and subject to escalating population growth, real estate appears to be a lucrative investment, a way to protect capital from eventual monetary devaluation. So as not to appear to be an absentee land-owner, and to avoid being affected by an eventual new reallocation of lands, these owners often plant their newly acquired lands with teak or eucalyptus. However, these plantations require very little labor power and do not result in very high added value per hectare.12

24Nowadays, the region’s forests are threatened not so much by slash-and-burn agriculture as by inopportune logging. While the government has banned private logging and has forced villagers to conserve the forests, it has only increased over the last decades. Over and over again district and village authorities have granted concessions. Logging is therefore frequently tolerated when individual land owners announce that they would like to turn their plots into rice fields or plantations for perennial crops. Villages have been allowed to log part of their theoretically reserved forests in order to pay costs of electrification in timber. There have even been cases of private logging companies cutting and selling more timber than necessary to pay for electrification and discreetly returning the surplus from the sale to the villagers, or at least its representatives. The obligation to reforest zones that have been clear-cut is not always respected. Reforested areas are more often than not allocated to new immigrants or young households looking for land to cultivate. While theoretically protected or reserved, the last dense forest areas are in constant decline.

25These examples are an illustration of the government’s difficulties with enforcing decrees that are often contradictory and not always realistic. It is not easy for authorities to make peasants respect the zoning of village territories based on a strict separation of cultivated areas (ager), pastures (saltus) and forest reserves (silva). It would appear that the region’s peasants preferred the system in which bush and tree re-growth supplied huge quantities of low-cost animal feed while also playing a fundamental role in renewing the soil fertility of those lands periodically cultivated after slash-and-burn. Fortunately, peasants and local authorities have been pragmatic in their interpretation and application of decrees. Still, the “land allocation program” and the new land laws have not offered peasants a great deal of land tenure security. Rather, these measures quickly led to a very unequal redistribution of land that has not been favorable to agricultural intensification.

Burgeoning Social Differences within Villages

26The time when young families could freely set up their household on wildlands has passed. With the arrival of migrants from mountain areas, successions within relatively large families, and the purchase and sale of land in a real estate market whose rules are yet ill-defined, arable lands are becoming an increasingly rare and unequally distributed resource.

27It is still possible to see family farms of an average size where the farmers have managed to exploit plots of land situated in different ecological conditions: gardens-orchards close to the house, small market gardens on the ridges of Nam Ngum banks, terraced rice fields that are flooded at different times of the year, uplands where slash-and-burn agriculture prepares the way for grazing or plantation of perennial crops, etc. The owners of these holdings are usually descendants of the region’s first settlers. They have inherited enough land to almost entirely ensure their family’s subsistence. Because plots are situated in relatively different agro-ecological zones, work periods are staggered throughout the year, thus ensuring permanent and relatively regular employment for family members, making it unnecessary to hire workers. Mutual aid in the form of exchanging labor during the busiest work periods is common among farms of this category. Monetary revenue come essentially from selling surplus grains and livestock: poultry, pigs, cattle, etc. In light of the current situation, the question is whether or not there exist more intensive farming systems that will allow the descendants of this category of farmers to remain in their village, given that land size will continue to diminish due to successions. More and more, it is becoming difficult to find new lands to clear in the region.

28The majority of farmers (about 60%), however, no longer have enough land to produce the totality of rations necessary to allow their family to subsist. Surface areas are generally no more than one hectare per worker, and farmers’ work capacity is already underutilized. Farmers usually have only one manual tillage implement and have to rent the attaching tool and draft animal to prepare the rice paddies. This situation generally applies to recent settlers: young households that inherited very small plots or migrants who arrived too late, after the shortage of cleared lands had become apparent. Unable to access lands that could be turned into rice paddies, many of these farmers are left to practice upland rain-fed rice production on plots that are increasingly cultivated and prey to weeds. Those who have rice paddies generally acquired or developed them on lands inconducive to cultivation: lowlands susceptible to sudden flooding or lands too high to benefit from sufficient water-logging. Animal husbandry often involves little more than poultry-raising, since farmers do not have the means to buy ruminants nor have the lands for them to graze on. In effort to complement their insufficient revenue, increasingly pauperized farmers periodically work as hired laborers (transplanting, weeding, harvesting) for better-off peasants and wealthy farmers who have a great deal more land.

29The better-off peasant class is comprised of producers with large rice fields. Paddy size is around 2.9 hectares per worker (with up to 8 hectares per family). Some families may also have between 10 and 40 hectares of fallow lands (with both recent and older re-growth) or tree plantations in upland areas. These are the farmers who seek most adamantly to “define their territory” by turning wildlands into permanent prairies or teak and eucalyptus plantations. They generally have ruminant herds of up to twenty heads. But diminishing grassy fallow and range lands (once undivided and freely accessible) make this type of animal husbandry more and more difficult. Some farmers have even sold part of their herds and their wildlands to new settlers and city-dwellers in order to better equip their farms by purchasing power tillers, building pisciculture tanks, installing grain-strippers and small paddy mills, pig-rearing in order to utilize rice bran and broken rice, etc. These farmers make a profit from some of the new equipment by selling their services for harrowing, threshing and husking to peasants with less capital. They also lend money and food at usurary rates. These credit activities often permit this category of farmers to expand their rice field holdings by seizing the paddies of defaulters who used their land as guarantee. The most well-off farmers are almost all from elite families that were among the region’s first settlers. They were able to plant their rice paddies on lands best-suited to flooded rice production, neither too high (where they risked lacking water), nor too low (where excessive flooding could be a problem). As elites with economic and social power, these families have been able to maintain their ownership rights on lands that are nevertheless left fallow for more than three consecutive years.

30In recent times, a few large landholders have appeared, mobilizing the waged labor force. For the most part, they are city-dwellers and merchants who recently purchased rice fields and have set up small, intensive poultry-rearing operations. This activity represents a way for the majority to invest accumulated capital outside of agriculture itself. The same can be said of the new “absentee owners” who invest their savings in land purchases, pasturelands and teak or eucalyptus plantations. These owners maintain their residence in the city, only occasionaly visiting their properties. Work is done by laborers who are supervised by salaried managers. The day laborers are farmers who do not have enough land to support their families and thus are forced to sell their labor from time to time to complement their income. These laborers bring their own rice for their meal; the employers provide the rest of the food and pay an average salary of 1.5-2.0 euros per day of work.

  • 13 Rates that are sometimes inferior to inflation and thus negative!

31What one observes, then, is that population growth in the region and increasing market liberalization have gone hand in hand with increased land concentration and social inequalities in the countryside. Absentee owners possess lands of up to a hundred hectares and benefit from loans at special rates13 from the Agricultural Promotion Bank (APB), a public institution that is careful to lend only to individuals and enterprises that are capable of providing guarantees. It is interesting to note that loans are only partially invested in agricultural activities. In effect, land owners are not so much interested in hiring laborers to produce more as they are in making a maximum profit on capital invested, whether borrowed from the bank or coming from their own resources. The most profitable investments are not necessarily those creating productive jobs; and as we will see, the concentration of land in the hands of large landholders and capitalist owners does not encourage labor- and input-intensive cropping and animal rearing systems.

Rapid Evolution of Cropping and Livestock Raising Systems

32Upland rainfed rice production based on slash-and-burn in rotation with root and tuber crops (maize, cotton, cassava, etc.) with fallow periods for the regeneration of natural vegetation, as it used to be practiced, is disappearing. Restrictions regarding expansion of cultivated lands by clear-cutting and leaving lands idle for more than three consecutive years are forcing farmers to considerably shorten fallow periods. This, combined with the inability to create and maintain a water-table, has made it difficult to fight off annual weeds so prevalent that farmers have had to practically give up any kind of rain-fed rice production. Whence many farmers are forced to transform their plots into rice fields, permanent prairies or perennial plantations.

33Peasants with lands that are too high up on former alluvial terraces have tried little by little to turn them into rice fields. Annual planting with regular and systematic cutting of stump shoots makes it possible to gradually eliminate woody plants and expose the plots to light. Working the soil more frequently and exposing it to high temperatures contributes to the rapid mineralization of humus, which has the effect of decreasing the soil’s structural stability, thus making it easier to turn it into mud. Once finished uprooting the plots, the bunds can be constructed and the land leveled. Repetitive annual tilling and increased frequency of puddling with a manual plow usually result in smoothing the soil at least 20 centimeters deep and this “hardpan” contributes to slowing down the percolation of water below the root zone. It then becomes possible to maintain a perched water-table in the rice fields and transplant the young rice plants. Only these seedlings emerge from the muddy layer, thus giving them a head start over emerging weeds. Rice fields relatively high up are usually planted with short cycle varieties that mature before the soil dries completely.

34In the event that some surface water from nearby plots drains into the rice field, its soil can be regularly fertilized by the slow sedimentation of particles deposited by the water. Rice cultivation in submerged rice fields is an effective way to produce rice annually on less surface area than required by slash-and-burn agriculture, and thus is a sustainable form of farming for peasants with draft animals or small power tillers. But we have seen that not all farmers have access to the means necessary to plant such rice fields and the poorest peasants often are obliged to grow root and tuber crops on land with no water surface and increasingly exposed to sun and weediness. These farmers are thus partially abandoning rainfed rice production to cultivate roots and tubers like maize and cassava. There is a dramatic decrease in the traditional cultivation of cotton, especially with the competition caused by imported clothing. Owners with large landholdings that cannot all be transformed into rice fields have, as we have seen, opted for establishing permanent grasslands or teak and eucalyptus plantations.

  • 14 The pumps used to bring water to the primary channel function with electricity, a form of energy th (...)

35In efforts to assure the country’s food self-sufficiency, the government is trying to promote more intensive cropping techniques in existing rice fields located in the entire Vientiane Plain region. Based on the success of the “green revolution” in other South-East Asian countries, these techniques include: irrigation, two annual crop cycles, the use of short term and high genetic potential seed varieties, chemical fertilizers and phytosanitary products, etc. The government with the occasional help of foreign aid has financed the development of two types of large irrigation systems: a pump system that extracts water from the Nam Ngum River14 to irrigate rice fields via a network of primary and secondary channels, and a gravity irrigation system with small check dams built across streams at the piedmont of Phou Khao Khouay. However, some descendants of the region’s first settlers have taken the initiative to install their own pump irrigation systems in lowlands areas near the distributaries of the Nam Ngum where there are still a few lakes during the dry season. In all, around 20% of rice paddies can now be irrigated in the region (Irrigation Division of the Agriculture Service of the Municipality of Vientiane, 2002).

Fig. 4: Government Investment in Irrigation Projects from 1975 to 2000

Fig. 4: Government Investment in Irrigation Projects from 1975 to 2000
  • 15 US$ 0.21 per kilogram of NPK (16-20-0).

36During the rainy season, irrigation is only supplementary, but nonetheless limits losses in the event of unexpected dry spells. Without using any chemical fertilizer, farmers manage to produce around 1.7 tons of paddy per hectare. But the main advantages irrigation offers is the capacity produce a second crop cycle during the dry season, when luminosity is at its highest level. This is the time of the year when irrigation and mineral fertilizers should be taken advantaged of the most. Since they must be imported from Thailand or Vietnam, however, these fertilizers are relatively expensive.15 Farmers thus use them in moderation, and yields during the dry season are only around 3 to 3.3 tons per hectare. With these results, farmers make little more than US$1.10 –1.15 per day of work, whereas the average daily salary for other activities in the region is around US$1.30– 2.00 (Sacklokham 2003). For large landholders and better-off peasants who have received credit from the APB and thus have the means necessary to engage in irrigated rice production during the dry season, there is little incentive to hire workers to cultivate fields; rather, they prefer to rent their paddies to the poorest farmers.

  • 16 A rent of around US$ 46 per hectare.

37Farmers who lease paddies to cultivate during the dry season are usually those who have the hardest time finding off-farm employment and thus are willing to cultivate rice despite the little remuneration that it offers. The problem lies in the fact that the same farmers who have a difficult time accessing credit from the APB must also pay their landlords, usually around 14% of the harvest,16 and therefore do not have the means to buy chemical fertilizers in large quantities. In addition, lease contracts are short-term, for only one crop cycle, and thus do not incite farmers to use basal dressing that would benefit most especially the landlords. This very likely explains why yields are so modest in irrigated rice cultivation during the dry season and the low profitability of hydro-agricultural systems.

38This phenomenon poses a number of problems, due to the fact that the government wishes to guarantee the nation’s food self-sufficiency via irrigation and intensification of rice production systems on the plain region. For hydro-agricultural systems to be used at full capacity, farmers must have both the means to fertilize their paddies and believe that it is in their interest to do so. Presently, only those farmers with medium-sized production units operating with their own family’s labor force and with sufficient income manage to meet these two conditions. This category of farmers should therefore be the priority target group for loans from the APB.

  • 17 0.7 ton of paddy is equivalent to roughly 0.434 ton of white rice. The latter must be imported for (...)

39It is also necessary to subsidize fertilizer purchases in order to make them more accessible to these producers and enable them to earn at least US$1.70 per day of work. At US$0.05 per kilogram of fertilizer, the subsidy would obviously represent an extra cost to the government. But in quantities of 300 kilograms per hectare, this subsidy would not be more than US$15 per hectare and would ultimately be profitable to the nation as a whole. Thus, to yield four tons of paddy per hectare (an increase of 0.7 tons), it would be necessary to import around 110 kg more fertilizer than current levels. At US$170 per ton (CIF importation cost, including insurance and freight), these fertilizers represent an added cost of US$ 18.70 per hectare but would make it possible to avoid importing the much more costly white rice at 65 US$ per hectare17 (Sacklokham 2003). In sum, provided that the quantity consumed is the same, it would appear much cheaper for the nation to import chemical fertilizers rather than white rice.

40Subsidizing a part of irrigation costs should perhaps also be considered. Currently, irrigating one hectare costs US$ 25, which represents around 8% of the harvest. It would be necessary to ensure that the organizations in charge of managing irrigation systems are able to maintain the infrastructures and absorb the costs of repair and replacement of materials when necessary. The government has recently made efforts to transfer the management of these structures to Water User Committees, although for the moment, there is no proof that these committees will be able to ensure the totality of maintenance and operation costs on a sustainable basis.

41With regard to the relatively fertile uplands located behind the ridges of the river banks, it is interesting to note the recent multiplication and expansion of small fruit plantations (bananas, pineapple, etc.). These transformations are the result of the efforts of relatively well-off peasants (usually the descendants of the first families to settle the region) looking to protect their properties by setting up these plantations. The expansion of areas planted with cash crops whose produce represents high commercial value (tamarind, papaya, mango, pineapple trees, etc.) is likely in the near future, given that it is increasingly easy to access roads going to the capital. One can also observe fields cultivated with maize or cassava, used mainly for small pig- or poultry-rearing operations. These new “gardens” cultivated nearly year-round with a very short (a few months) fallow period are also a result of the efforts of farmers with a relatively significant capital base. Nevertheless, the question of reproduction of soil fertility will come up sooner or later, considering that these better-off farmers often substitute power tillers for draft animals. In the past, the night folding of these animals, either under or close to the house, resulted in a concentration of dung that the farmers would regularly use to fertilize their gardens and cultivated lands near the village. Selling these animals to buy power tillers (and in reaction to the gradual reduction of grazing lands) has resulted in considerably reducing the possibility for “lateral” transfers of organic matter from range lands to lands that are increasingly planted. Farmers should thus have access to even more chemical fertilizers in the future for their plots of maize and tubers. But here again, the relatively high cost of fertilizers limits the profitability of such fertilization, and is not accessible by all.

42Due to the substitution of power tillers for draft animals and the gradual decrease of free rangelands, large ruminant (buffalos and cattle) animal rearing is becoming less important on medium-sized farms. Only those farmers who have not been able to buy power tillers still have draft animals for plowing or animal-drawn carts. They are often forced to tether their animals to keep them from going into cultivated plots, even if it means cutting the grasses on the bunds in order to complement their rations. The largest herds are now raised for meat production either by the farmers who have established permanent prairies or wood grasslands or those who can still send their animals to graze on the foot of Phou Khao Khouay.

43The reduction of forest cover that has resulted from the increase in population density and expansion of cultivated land has made it more difficult to complement income with hunting, gathering or fishing. Due to rarefaction of fish resources, peasant families must now spend more time in order to catch fish. Better-off peasants have started to build small pisciculture tanks and initiate small pisciculture operations (tilapia, carp, catfish) in order to compensate for the drop in revenue obtained from “natural” fishing.

What Direction Towards “Sustainable” Agricultural Development?

44This overview of recent changes to agriculture in the zone of the Vientiane Plain located between the piedmont of Phou Khao Khouay and the right bank of the Nam Ngum River makes it possible to take a new look at the assumptions underlying the nature and trends of public interventions designed to promote new forms of agricultural development in Lao PDR.

45By clearly delineating the areas strictly reserved for forests and pasturelands, and by ensuring farmers’ land tenure security, the “land allocation program” should have incited peasants to intensify their cropping and livestock raising systems and prevent them from having to constantly clear new forest patches. But contrary to meeting these objectives affirmed many times over, the restrictions on slash-and-burn, the distribution of uplands with restrictions on leaving them fallow for more than three consecutive years, and the measures to encourage reforestation have had negative consequences on the reproduction of soil fertility and the ability of very poor peasants to generate income in the long term. The new land legislation and distribution of permanent property titles have ultimately encouraged the emergence of a real estate market and nothing indicates that the “small and medium” peasant classes are benefiting from it.

46In a context where the government has taken action to settle mountain peasants on the plain, city families with sufficient capital are taking advantage of reforestation measures to appropriate more and more uplands and plant teak and eucaplytus trees with money borrowed from the APB. Unable to access protected common lands and those left fallow, the most marginalized peasants increasingly must cultivate the few plots of land attributed to them, but without the means necessary to assure the reproduction of the soil’s fertility. Increasingly impoverished, these peasants must work as agricultural laborers in order to complement the income generated from agricultural production units that are too small. Due to their increasing indebtedness to usurary lenders, these workers may find themselves constrained to flee the countryside, without any certainty of being able to find employment in the city.

47Over the last decades, however, peasants have demonstrated their pragmatism and proved perfectly capable of intensifying their cropping systems each time they had the means to do so and it was in their interest. They should, therefore, be the priority target group for government subsidies and loans from the APB. This would make it possible for them to fertilize their rice paddies more frequently and take better advantage of irrigation systems, as well as plant fruit crops with high value added on upland areas behind the ridges of Nam Ngum’s banks, develop small intensive pig- and poultry-rearing operations, build pisciculture tanks, cultivate forage plants and associate ruminant rearing with agriculture, etc. There is no lack of alternatives for sustainably increasing agricultural yields and productivity for the “small and medium” peasant classes. However, they require government interventions to be redirected in their favor. It would likely be necessary, as well, to adapt, rather than replicate, “solutions” that have worked in other South-East Asian countries like those proposed by the “green revolution”. Due to its relative isolation, the prices of manufactured inputs are likely to stay much higher in Lao PDR than in neighboring countries. Even in the Vientiane Plain region, care must be taken to prioritize the ways and means designated to ensuring maximum plant cover and organic fertilization.

  • 18 On the question of the dangers of slash-and-burn agriculture in the mountain and hill regions of La (...)

48But the question is whether or not it is truly adequate to want to displace mountain populations to the plains, knowing that practicing slash-and-burn agriculture in rotation with long-term forest fallow in sparsely populated regions is not always as destructive to tree cover18as the poorly controlled logging activities of private companies, and given that there is the risk of overestimating the “comparative advantages” attributed to the plains for green revolution-inspired rice production. The most recently arrived migrants to the plain are having great difficulty finding lands to cultivate for themselves, and thus must lease from absentee landowners or better-off peasants. This form of share-cropping has not proved to be very favorable to the intensification of agricultural production.

49Generally speaking, the State should take into account more fully the different situations that peasants of different regions must work in, and not transpose, without modification, the practices that have worked outside the country. Otherwise, there is risk of these interventions causing effects totally contrary to those expected. Fortunately, farmers have known how to take advantage of loopholes and contradictions in land and forest legislation in order to give themselves enough room to manœuvre and to modify their farming systems according to their interests. But, it is no less true that in order to satisfy the “objectives of general interest” of the population, the government must put more trust in farmers, and give them the means to practice crop and livestock systems that are both productive and respectful of the environment.

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Condominas, G., & C. Gaudillot, 2000, La plaine de Vientiane. Etude socio-économique, Republication of a mission report from October 1959, Paris: SevenOrients & Paul Geuthner.

Irrigation Division, 2000, Rapport sur la remise des projets d’irrigation aux Associations d’Usagers de l’Eau, Vientiane: Service of Agriculture and Forests of the Municipality of Vientiane.

Irrigation Department, 2002, Irrigation report 2001/2002, Vientiane: Ministry of Agriculture and Forests of Lao PDR.

Dufumier, M., 1980, “Les premières transformations socialistes de l’agriculture en République Démocratique Populaire Lao,” Revue Tiers-Monde, XXI (84).

IUCN, 1996, Biodiversity conservation, protected areas and the development imperative in Lao PDR: Forging the links, Vientiane: The International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Sacklokham, S., 2003, Développement agricole, migrations rurales et problèmes fonciers, en République Démocratique Populaire Lao. Le cas de la plaine en contrebas du Phou Khao Khouay, doctoral thesis, Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon (INAPG), Paris.

Suryadhay, I., 1970, Le régime actuel de la propriété foncière, R. Jur. Pol. Ind. Coop. No 4657134.

Taillard, C., 1974, Le village lao: organisation des pouvoirs et organisation de l’espace. Essai de géographie sociale dans la plaine de Vientiane, multigraphed document, Paris.

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1 Doctoral thesis defended in 2003 by S. Sacklokham at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon (INAPG).

2 It is interesting to remark that, among the conditions imposed on Cambodia when becoming a member of the WTO in 2003, was the government’s commitment to never apply subsidies to agricultural development.

3 Decree of the Prime Minister of LPDR n° 99 / PM, published in 1992.

4 Decrees of the Prime Minister of LPDR n° 169/PM from 3/11/93 and n° 186/PM from 12/10/94.

5 For many years, Phou Khao Khouay was a refuge for fighters of the Lao Patriotic Front and the armed forces of the royal government obviously tried to block their descent towards the Vientiane Plain.

6 Around 520 families (3,000 inhabitants) in an area of 175 Sq. km.

7 The majority of farmers came with buffalos and tillage tools that could be hitched to the animals. Small animal-drawn non-reversible moldboard plows with one handle, comb harrows, etc.

8 Definitive uprooting of plots, construction of bunds and leveling of rice fields could only be done gradually, when the floodable lowlands had an argillaceous texture and were not muddy.

9 Especially in the Saysomboune special zone, situated near the buttress of the Xieng Khouang plateau.

10 Party members and committee members who were aware of the government’s intentions.

11 Since the country has opened up to international markets, families whose members took refuge abroad (USA, Europe, Australia) in the 1970s have been able to benefit from remittances sent by their migrant relatives.

12 From 83 to 185 US $/hectare, depending on the price of wood (Sacklokham 2003).

13 Rates that are sometimes inferior to inflation and thus negative!

14 The pumps used to bring water to the primary channel function with electricity, a form of energy that the Lao PDR abundantly exports.

15 US$ 0.21 per kilogram of NPK (16-20-0).

16 A rent of around US$ 46 per hectare.

17 0.7 ton of paddy is equivalent to roughly 0.434 ton of white rice. The latter must be imported for 150 US$ per ton (cost – insurance – freight), i.e., a total of 65.10 US$ per hectare.

18 On the question of the dangers of slash-and-burn agriculture in the mountain and hill regions of Lao PDR, and the possible alternatives, see the articles by Olivier Ducourtieux and Jean Richard Laffort in this issue.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Zone of Study in the Vientiane Plain
Crédits Source: Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, 1996.
Fichier image/png, 69k
Titre Fig. 2: Gradual Settlement of Villages in the 20th Century
Fichier image/png, 50k
Titre Fig. 3: Evolution of Population Density
Fichier image/png, 10k
Titre Fig. 4: Government Investment in Irrigation Projects from 1975 to 2000
Fichier image/png, 11k
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Référence papier

Silinthone Sacklokham et Marc Dufumier, « Land-Tenure Policy, Deforestation, and Agricultural Development in Lao PDR: the Case of the Vientiane Plain »Moussons, 9-10 | 2006, 189-207.

Référence électronique

Silinthone Sacklokham et Marc Dufumier, « Land-Tenure Policy, Deforestation, and Agricultural Development in Lao PDR: the Case of the Vientiane Plain »Moussons [En ligne], 9-10 | 2006, mis en ligne le 02 mai 2013, consulté le 26 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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