Looking Up in Lao PDR

Kok Ngiew village in northern Lao PDR

Once upon a time, Lao PDR was a nation of forests. Eight decades ago, forests covered 70 percent of the nation; they now cover only 35 percent. Despite this massive deforestation, Lao PDR sits in the world’s largest timber-manufacturing region and remains one of its most forested — and poorest — nations.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Lao PDR over the past 20 years, and in that time, I’ve seen a significant amount of deforestation up close. But I’ve also seen positive developments in the forests that are starting to benefit the country and its people.

One of my favorite examples is the story of how, in the rolling hills of northern Lao PDR, timber — timber that was once considered waste wood — is now finding its way to environmentally conscious markets on the other side of the world. The increased income created by this new trade connection is a good thing for Kao Sisompou, a teak farmer with a grandchild on the way and school fees to pay.

Sisompou — head of the Kok Ngiew village Teak Farmers Group — says that he’s now able to sell even small logs on the international market. He’s learned the value of his product, so the buyers that used to take advantage of him and his peers have fallen away — they know Sisompou will no longer accept their low offers.

Kao Sisompou in a teak forest

Sisompou is the beneficiary of a growing trend in global trade: conscientious consumption. More and more people at the end of the supply chain — people like you and me — are choosing to buy products that were sustainably sourced. We want to know that our dollars are getting us more than just a product, they they’re also supporting hard-working communities located in, say, some of the planet’s last remaining tropical forests.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which I’ve written about before, helps people like us make wiser purchasing decisions by certifying certain forest products that adhere to sustainable guidelines. And, smartly, the FSC has recognized that getting their forests certified can be challenging for resource-strapped communities. The FSC has created two certification options (one, group certification with a larger group of nearby communities; and two, certification under a set of modified requirements for small-scale forests) to make it easier for these forests to earn the recognition they deserve for staying sustainable.

Which is all well and good — but how do people like Sisompou learn about these developments, which are happening in conference rooms and offices half a world away? That’s where organizations like the Conservancy and our Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) partners like TFT (The Forest Trust) or RECOFTC -The Center for People and Forests come in.

We play a role in connecting sustainable farmers to the new global mechanisms and markets that aim to support their work. That’s crucial for teak farmers like Sisompou who are managing a highly coveted product but are disconnected from international markets that are willing to pay more to know that their wood comes from responsible sources.

In Lao PDR, for example, TFT helped local farmers learn about and meet FSC criteria and sell their products to responsible buyers. Farmers have learned to identify and protect conservation areas, and they’ve adopted better management practices, like planting trees farther apart and allowing debris to act as fertilizer. These techniques are better for the soil, for wildlife and for the final teak product.

Workers in a Burapha Agroforestry Co., Ltd factory in Lao PDR

The farmers are now regularly selling timber to Swedish furniture maker Burapha Agroforestry Co., Ltd for double the price they used to receive from local traders. While this is obviously better for the farmers, it’s better for Burapha, too.

Petter Svensson, marketing manager at Burapha, says that the certification process has given his company peace of mind about the timber they’re buying. They have much better relationships with the teak farmers and are able to discuss the quality and legality of the timber directly with the merchants. That makes a big difference.

Perhaps what’s most fantastic about this particular story is that it needn’t be the last of its kind. What Sisompou and the Teak Farmers Group accomplished  in Lao PDR can be achieved across Asia-Pacific. Equipping communities to determine whether FSC certification makes sense for them and how to get there is exactly what TFT’s new Community Forestry Handbook sets out to do. There’s a lot of good work already being done — the trick is giving sustainable forest managers the resources they need to stay the course.

[First image: Kok Ngiew village in northern Lao PDR. First image credit: Allison Bleaney/RAFT. Second image: Kao Sisompou in a teak forest. Second image credit: Allison Bleaney/RAFT. Third image: Workers in a Burapha Agroforestry Co., Ltd factory in Lao PDR. Third image credit: Allison Bleaney/RAFT.)

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