They say that good things come to those who wait. That has certainly been the case for teak farmers living around Luang Prabang, Lao PDR, who are reaping the benefits of an ongoing and expanding collaborative forest management initiative that some felt would never come to fruition.
Landlocked Lao PDR is one of the most beautiful countries in Southeast Asia and Luang Prabang Province, with its UNESCO world heritage listed main town of the same name, is one of the jewels in its crown. The mighty Mekong carves majestic valleys through the lush wooded mountains while golden temples and monks in saffron robes provide extra colour.
These peaceful forests are notable for the presence of teak. A fabled product native to south and Southeast Asia, it is prized for its durability and water resistance, and is used for boat building, exterior construction, veneer, furniture, carving, turnings, and other small wood projects.
Yet all this simple beauty masks a complicated land and forest regulatory system that makes undertaking responsible forestry a complex business. Lao PDR remains one of the poorest nations in the region and infrastructure issues hamper communication and transport links. The country’s economy, however, is growing at an extraordinary rate, which holds promise for the future.
As things stand, many challenges remain. Although Lao PDR is rich in forests, unclear laws and overlapping jurisdictions leave forest managers unsure of what rules to follow and, consequently, without access to high value markets for legal and sustainable products.
The Forest Trust (TFT), a key partner member of the Australian and US Government-funded Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) program, encountered a number of challenges while attempting to negotiate this framework. TFT wanted to establish a partnership between the Lao government and teak farmers in the area to practice sustainable forest management.
By helping farmers maximize the value of their product, the partnership would increase earning potential on the domestic and regional markets. Additionally, FSC certified wood could be exported to more strictly regulated markets such as Australia, the EU and U.S.
Strenuous efforts were required to navigate the governance system. Eventually, however, in late 2007 after nearly a year of negotiation, the Luang Prabang Teak Program (LPTP) commenced in the village of Ban Kok Ngiew.
Previously farmers had little or no knowledge of true market prices for teak, or methods to better manage their resources. Nor were their plantations legally registered.
With the support of LPTP, farmers were able to organise themselves into ‘Teak Farmers’ Groups’ and legally register the plots of member families. Although the government owns the land, plantation registration grants farmers rights to sell wood along with exemption from land taxes and compensation for appropriated land.
After four years of training and capacity building among the farmers, the program achieved Forest Management and Chain of Custody (CoC) certification in May 2011. Since May 2011, LPTP has successfully increased income from teak farming while delivering wood into responsible markets.
“Through the LPTP program we have learned how to measure and price our logs, which means that we can sell to responsible markets,” says Kao Sisompou, head of the Kok Ngiew village Teak Farmers Group. “With more knowledge we are being empowered to have better negotiation power. This has increased our earning potential. Before, many of us saw our teak as a way of making quick cash by selling to local traders. Now we are aware that it can really be a long-term revenue stream that will benefit our families and generations to come.”
One of the main features of the program during the most recent phase of RAFT-funding has been its expansion into neighbouring villages. Currently the program includes 137 household members in four villages while an additional four villages is the target for the end of 2013. Like their counterparts in Ban Kok Ngiew, farmers here are being trained in the sustainable management of plantations. Meanwhile, 100 new plantations are in the process of becoming registered.
“We have learned a great deal during the timeframe of the LPTP,” says Katia Masias Brocker, who works with TFT in Lao PDR. “For example we discovered that the farmer group that we originally established in Kok Ngiew was too large. A group of over nine people meant that some members of the group did less work or felt less empowered than others”.
“Having been able to observe this over a period of time we have been able to implement refinements and now farmers’ groups only involve two or three people. With the expansion into other villages we continue to look at different ways we can become even more efficient in the future and maximise the earning potential for these communities.”
RAFT’s work in Lao PDR is an excellent example of how stakeholders can be engaged to work towards goals that satisfy a variety of needs. Communities have benefited from training which has helped them manage their land better, learn negotiating skills and navigate complicated land registration processes. Meanwhile, the LPTP supports the Government of Lao PDR under its Forest Strategy 2020 and the National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy (NGPES), both of which promote small-scale tree plantations for commercial production and an increase of forested areas. This type of engagement is empowering communities around the region.