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Civil society participation key in international forestry programmes in Laos

15 March 2017 University of Eastern Finland

The participation of civil society organisations in the international REDD+ programmes seeking to reduce deforestation, forest degradation and CO² emissions could play a key role in enhancing collaboration between local and international natural resources governance actors in Laos. Furthermore, the EU’s Action Plan on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) could increase the opportunities of civil society organisations to participate in responsive natural resources governance, according to a new study from the University of Eastern Finland and the European Forest Institute. In Laos, however, limitations are being posed on civil society organisations, and civic society is only beginning to form.

The findings were recently published in Forests, with Academy Research Fellow Irmeli Mustalahti from the University of Eastern Finland as the first author. The researchers analysed international FLEGT and REDD+ programmes in Laos. Situated in Southeast Asia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic has a population of around 6.8 million people, and its neighbouring countries include Thailand, China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. The landlocked country is poor, yet rich in natural resources, and Laos uses hydropower to produce energy for export to its neighbouring countries. Forests constitute another important natural resource from the viewpoints of wood production, biodiversity and sustainable water resources management alike.

The REDD+ programme of the UN and the World Bank seeks to reduce CO2 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in collaboration between local, national and international actors. And the EU’s FLEGT action plan and its Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), on the other hand, seek to ensure the enforcement of forest law and the management of forest governance and trade through governmental agreements concluded with countries that import tropical wood to the EU. The objective of FLEGT is to combat illegal logging and trade in associated timber products in the VPA countries. Another objective of FLEGT is to promote forest governance and sustainable development in the VPA countries. A FLEGT licence ensures that timber products such as furniture, veneers, wood pulp and paper products are manufactured legally.

Civil society organisations in Laos have an important role to play, but limited resources

In Laos, the role of international civil society organisations in the planning of the REDD+ programme mainly involved participation in the planning meetings and raising people’s awareness, without decision-making power. The capacity of local civil society organisations was deemed weak; yet they play a crucial role in determining the needs and values of local actors.

During the preparations for the VPA negotiations in 2015, only four local civil society organisation reported to have the role of an observer and having been informed of the FLEGT action plan.  However, during the researchers’ most recent trip to Laos in February 2017, around 20 local civil society organisations reported to be following the development of FLEGT, and five of these organisations had participated in related preparatory meetings. Nevertheless, the role of civil society organisations in Laos is seen to be limited to “raising environmental awareness”, and they have limited opportunities and capacity to participate in decision-making.

According to the researchers, the participation of civil society organisations could bring valuable local insight into the REDD+ and FLEGT programmes, and would enhance the fairness and transparency of the processes. However, the political system of Laos does not support independent civic society, and civil society organisations cannot participate in and influence governmental decision-making.

According to the researchers, the key challenges of natural resources governance in Laos include raising awareness of natural resources governance and international forestry programmes, and building educational, financial and responsive capacity in the country.

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