Accessibility might benefit livelihoods but not necessarily forests

Nambor village market_Schmidt-Vogt

Local market in Nambor village, 45km from Luang Prabang, northern Laos.
Photo: Puwadej Thanichanon

Government policies in Laos to eradicate shifting cultivation and relocate villages closer to services may be improving livelihoods but not achieving the goal of greater forest protection.

The results of a study published in Society and Natural Resources challenge the belief that improving accessibility to government services, infrastructure and markets will give people alternative sources of income and therefore take the pressure off forest resources.

“Improving accessibility can be a mixed blessing,” says Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt Head of Research Program with the World Agroforestry Centre and co-author of the study. “We found that people living close to a provincial center were no longer practicing shifting cultivation and instead growing cash crops, but still accessing and degrading the secondary forest, primarily for firewood to use in cooking.”

The study compared the condition of forests and local livelihoods in 3 villages along a gradient of accessibility in Phonxay district of Luang Prabang province, northern Laos. Village 1 was 45km from the provincial center, village 2 was 65km away and village 3 was 115km from the center.

Household surveys showed that most people in village 1 are practicing commercial agriculture whereas in villages 2 and 3, the main occupation is subsistence agriculture; cultivation of upland rice in shifting cultivation systems, some cultivation of cash crops, livestock-keeping and collection of wood, bark and food from secondary forests.

In northern Laos, secondary forest (forest which is naturally regenerating after shifting cultivation) makes up more than half of the total forest area. It serves an important role in providing rural people with energy, as even in sub-district or district centers, people still use firewood for their cooking.

Secondary forests also provide ecological services, timber for construction and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) that make up 44 per cent of household subsistence and 55 per cent of household income.

Secondary forests are peoples’ main source of food after rice fields, providing bamboo shoots, mushrooms and other foods. NTFPs that are traded include light construction materials such as bamboo, paper mulberry and broom grass as well as mushrooms, bark and insects.

The study assessed the condition of secondary forest through a survey of vegetation, finding that with increasing accessibility, forest condition deteriorates.

In village 1 the forest is small and degraded. While the percentage of households collecting commercial NTFPs from this village was the lowest in the study, the village has a large population – due to migration of people to access services – so the number of people using the forest and exploiting its resources is high.

“People might be less dependent on forest resources in village 1, but they are still accessing NTFPs, demonstrating that improving accessibility may in the long-term actually lead to greater environmental degradation,” explains lead author Puwadej Thanichanon, PhD student at the PhD at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

The least accessible village had the highest percentage of families with subsistence activities as their main occupation and the highest dependence on forests. Despite this, the condition of the forest was better than in the other villages.

To determine how accessibility has influenced livelihoods, information was collected on peoples’ incomes, land availability, basic infrastructure and occupations. The results show that improving physical accessibility improves livelihoods.

People living in village 1 were found to have the highest average income and the largest land holdings. They also had the best infrastructure, market opportunities and access to extension services. According to Thanichanon this this has a high impact on villagers’ occupation.

“Market opportunities have created more income from cash crops, tree plantations and NTFP trading and domestication,” says Schmidt-Vogt. “This means people have better access to food, health care, education communication, information and transportation.”

The land use zoning policies of the Laos government aimed at eradicating shifting cultivation and enhancing forest protection through relocating villages from uplands to lowlands have certainly benefitted village 1 in terms of livelihoods. But these same policies may be leading to poor livelihoods in less accessible villages as a result of declining productivity from shifting cultivation, declining availability of NTFPs and lack of alternative income sources.

“Villages 2 and 3 have low compliance, low conservation and a very high incidence of illegal activities.”

The authors of the study say that rural development projects geared towards improving infrastructure and marketing need to be accompanied by complementary measures that buffer against social differentiation, support adaptation processes of vulnerable farmers, strengthen institutional mechanisms and protect forest and land resources.

Download the full article (with subscription):

Thanichanon P, Schmidt-Vogt D., Messerli, P., Heinimann, A., Epprecht, M. (2013). Secondary forests and local livelihoods along a gradient of accessibility: a case study in northern Laos. Society & Natural Resources 26 (11) p1-17.'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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