How local communities in Laos restore their essential forests

In one of the most biodiverse forests in the world, rural communities rehabilitate their homes with native tree planting

Young girl carrying seedling on her back and smiling in Laos

Lush green trees, winding shaded creeks, and patches of low-hanging fog are all wonders of the Central Annamite Landscape (CAL), a transboundary forest that passes through central Viet Nam and southern Laos. The CAL hosts a diverse range of communities and boasts some of the most unique biodiversity in the world, including over 500 species of birds and many endangered animals like flying squirrels and the douc langur monkey. In the last century, only six new large mammal species have been identified in the world and three of them, the Saola, Truong Son muntjac, and the Large-antlered muntjac, are only found in the CAL.

Older man in a hat crouching and smiling while planting a tree in Laos

A local community member plants a seedling. 

Between 1940 and 2010, forest cover in Laos decreased by roughly 30%, putting both people and wildlife in danger. The CAL contains a number of rural districts including Kaleum, Ta-Oi, and Samoui, where WWF-Laos partners with local community members and local government, restoring and protecting high conservation value rain forest areas. The communities involved in the project are made up of some of Laos’s ethnic minority groups living in areas where almost all livelihoods are made from the forest’s natural resources. Illegal logging and forest conversion for unsustainable agriculture has threatened these livelihoods. “Nowadays, we have to go farther away to collect non-timber forest products or fish because we can hardly get them near our village,” a local community member says.

Khampanh Keovilaysak, who leads community engagement for WWF-Laos's work in the CAL, spoke with staff and community members in the field about their efforts to restore the forest. One WWF field staffer says, “Forests are a part of villagers’ livelihoods; they have depended on forests for everyday life for generations. The forest is their home, market, and hospital.”

To begin to build back a dwindling forest, mitigate the negative impacts of deforestation, and ensure that forest-dependent communities' sustainably benefit from natural resources, WWF-Laos started the Community-Based Forest Restoration and Management for Livelihood Project, in partnership with WWF-Finland. The project, which prioritizes human rights-based conservation, started in 2018 and is now in its final year. To put sustainable forest management back into the hands of the people who rely on the forest directly, the program focuses on knowledge sharing and the distribution of both financial benefits and technical training to local communities through native tree planting.

At the project’s first restoration event in 2019, over 3,000 native tree seedlings were planted. Now, after another planting in July 2021, nearly 100 acres of the forest is supported by 30,000 new trees and protected by the local people. The seedlings are typically planted in important watershed areas to enhance healthy water supply for the nearly 2,500 people this project impacts. Communities that grow seedlings say that having sufficient water is an essential factor for producing healthy trees. 

Local community members in Laos sit on blankets in the village common area laid out to discuss a tree planting and forest management program

A group of local participants gather for the official Community-Based Forest Restoration and Management for Livelihood Project kickoff in June 2019. 

The chief of the Phortang village says, “Initially I thought that this project would be like some other forest projects that organize tree plantings every year, but just leave after planting is finished and never come back. However, this project is different.” He continued, “This project worked with our community, closely supporting us from the seedling nursery to planting in the forest restoration areas.”

Before starting the project in each village, WWF staff visit communities in or near the forest where they have conversations about the effects of deforestation, climate change, and illegal hunting. Bounchanh Sakounnavong leads the forest management team for WWF-Laos and has taken part in these planning conversations. He says, “During my first field visit I presented about forest restoration. I saw young people who know what is happening to their forests and want to see what they can do. It’s an inspiration for me to keep doing my work.”

Once communities or individual members have agreed to participate in the program, WWF staff train them to take care of seedling nurseries and then come back to help plant once they’re ready. The funding for the program covers the cost of all seedlings and supports enhanced livelihoods through the production of non-forest timber products like rattan and bamboo.

Two hands plant a seedling in Laos

A local community member plants a seedling. 

Amphone Phommachak, who runs WWF program management in the CAL, says the success of this local partnership is because of open dialogue with the communities involved. “Mutual agreement and consultation mean that community members know what the project is about, what they are expected to contribute, and what the benefits and risks could be.” Phommachak says. “After this process, we find that most community members are happy to be involved.”

Many threats still endanger the forest in Laos, including illegal hunting, logging, and forest conversion for agriculture and economic development. Finding a solution for these complex issues is difficult because each community varies depending on their distance from the forest, their socioeconomic status, and their culture. Despite these challenges, the chief of Phortang says, “Participation in the program increased this year. Some of our villagers are now mastered in seedling growing and our villagers monitor the forest regularly, so the trees planted last year have grown up nicely.”

While reflecting on the approach to this project, Sakounnavong says, “When it comes to forest restoration and community-based forest management, it seems that communities want to be involved because their interests and needs are the priority in the sustainable forest management plan. When law enforcement activities are introduced alone, communities are often less active or committed to conservation actions. But when forest restoration and management are introduced, people are incentivized and active because they see the short-term benefits in generating income through selling and planting seedlings and the long-term benefits of a thriving forest.”