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Laos-Environmental Problems and Policy





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Laos Index

Laos suffers from a number of environmental problems, the most important of which are related to deforestation. Expanding commercial exploitation of the forests, plans for additional hydroelectric facilities, foreign demand for wild animals and nonwood forest products for food and traditional medicines, and a growing population put increasing pressure on the forests. Deforestation not only destroyed at least 150,000 to 160,000 hectares of valuable forest annually in the 1980s, but also caused erosion--leading to siltation of reservoirs, navigation channels, and irrigation systems downstream--and reduced groundwater levels. The practice of swidden cultivation not only contributes greatly to deforestation, but, in 1987, also made Laos one of eleven countries in the world that together were responsible for over 80 percent of net world carbon emissions amounting to a per capita emission of ten tons annually, compared with the world average of 1.17 tons per capita. Further, during the Second Indochina War (1954-75), Laos was heavily bombed and left with tons of unexploded ordnance and bomb craters that ultimately altered the local ecology.

The government's desire to preserve valuable hardwoods for commercial extraction and to protect the forest environment, as well as international concern about environmental degradation and the loss of many wildlife species unique to Laos, have motivated efforts to prohibit swidden cultivation throughout the country (see Natural Resources , ch. 2). This policy has a significant effect on the livelihoods of upland villagers dependent on swidden cultivation of rice. Traditional patterns of village livelihood relied on forest products as a food reserve during years of poor rice harvest and as a regular source of fruits and vegetables. By the 1990s, however, these gathering systems were breaking down in many areas. The government has restricted the clearing of forestland for swidden cropping since the late 1980s and is attempting to resettle upland swidden farming villages in lowland locations where paddy rice cultivation is possible. However, both the government's inability to ensure compliance with the measures and the attraction of Thai money for forest products inhibits implementation of the restrictions.

Although a lack of environmental planning, surveys, and legislation diminishes the likelihood of substantial improvement of the environment in the near future, a number of decrees were issued to encourage environmental protection. These decrees include general principles for protecting forestland; prohibitions on cutting certain tree species; regulations on hunting, fishing, and the use of fire during the dry season; and regulations on the management and protection of forestland, wildlife, and fish. The use of manure and compost encouraged to help rejuvenate soil. Burning also encourages many forms of forest growth.

The government's commitment to environmental protection is affirmed in the constitution and in its policy of finding new occupations for swidden cultivators. In 1991 the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry established a land use program under the National Forest Resource Conservation and Development Strategy. The program reserves 17.0 million hectares, including 9.6 million hectares for forest protection, 2.4 million hectares for wildlife reserves and national parks, and 5.0 million hectares for production. However, the commitment is mainly on paper: the highest priority park--Nam Theun--will be flooded by a hydroelectric dam by 2000.

Data as of July 1994



BackgroundModern-day Laos has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, established in the 14th Century under King FA NGUM. For 300 years Lan Xang had influence reaching into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, as well as over all of what is now Laos. After centuries of gradual decline, Laos came under the domination of Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century when it became part of French Indochina. The Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907 defined the current Lao border with Thailand. In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao took control of the government ending a six-century-old monarchy and instituting a strict socialist regime closely aligned to Vietnam. A gradual return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws began in 1988. Laos became a member of ASEAN in 1997.
LocationSoutheastern Asia, northeast of Thailand, west of Vietnam
Area(sq km)total: 236,800 sq km
land: 230,800 sq km
water: 6,000 sq km
Geographic coordinates18 00 N, 105 00 E
Land boundaries(km)total: 5,083 km
border countries: Burma 235 km, Cambodia 541 km, China 423 km, Thailand 1,754 km, Vietnam 2,130 km

Coastline(km)0 km (landlocked)

Climatetropical monsoon; rainy season (May to November); dry season (December to April)

Elevation extremes(m)lowest point: Mekong River 70 m
highest point: Phou Bia 2,817 m
Natural resourcestimber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold, gemstones
Land use(%)arable land: 4.01%
permanent crops: 0.34%
other: 95.65% (2005)

Irrigated land(sq km)1,750 sq km (2003)
Total renewable water resources(cu km)333.6 cu km (2003)
Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural)total: 3 cu km/yr (4%/6%/90%)
per capita: 507 cu m/yr (2000)
Natural hazardsfloods, droughts
Environment - current issuesunexploded ordnance; deforestation; soil erosion; most of the population does not have access to potable water
Environment - international agreementsparty to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection
signed, but not ratified: none of the selected agreements
Geography - notelandlocked; most of the country is mountainous and thickly forested; the Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand
Population6,834,942 (July 2009 est.)
Age structure(%)0-14 years: 40.8% (male 1,400,126/female 1,386,480)
15-64 years: 56.1% (male 1,898,995/female 1,936,892)
65 years and over: 3.1% (male 92,070/female 120,379) (2009 est.)
Median age(years)total: 19.3 years
male: 19 years
female: 19.6 years (2009 est.)
Population growth rate(%)2.316% (2009 est.)
Birth rate(births/1,000 population)33.94 births/1,000 population (2009 est.)
Death rate(deaths/1,000 population)10.78 deaths/1,000 population (July 2009 est.)

Net migration rate(migrant(s)/1,000 population)NA (2009 est.)
Urbanization(%)urban population: 31% of total population (2008)
rate of urbanization: 5.6% annual rate of change (2005-10 est.)
Sex ratio(male(s)/female)at birth: 1.05 male(s)/female
under 15 years: 1.01 male(s)/female
15-64 years: 0.98 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0.76 male(s)/female
total population: 0.98 male(s)/female (2009 est.)
Infant mortality rate(deaths/1,000 live births)total: 77.82 deaths/1,000 live births
male: 86.94 deaths/1,000 live births
female: 68.25 deaths/1,000 live births (2009 est.)

Life expectancy at birth(years)total population: 56.68 years
male: 54.56 years
female: 58.9 years (2009 est.)

Total fertility rate(children born/woman)4.41 children born/woman (2009 est.)
Nationalitynoun: Lao(s) or Laotian(s)
adjective: Lao or Laotian
Ethnic groups(%)Lao 55%, Khmou 11%, Hmong 8%, other (over 100 minor ethnic groups) 26% (2005 census)

Religions(%)Buddhist 67%, Christian 1.5%, other and unspecified 31.5% (2005 census)
Languages(%)Lao (official), French, English, and various ethnic languages

Country nameconventional long form: Lao People's Democratic Republic
conventional short form: Laos
local long form: Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao
local short form: Pathet Lao (unofficial)
Government typeCommunist state
Capitalname: Vientiane (Viangchan)
geographic coordinates: 17 58 N, 102 36 E
time difference: UTC+7 (12 hours ahead of Washington, DC during Standard Time)
Administrative divisions16 provinces (khoueng, singular and plural) and 1 capital city* (nakhon luang, singular and plural); Attapu, Bokeo, Bolikhamxai, Champasak, Houaphan, Khammouan, Louangnamtha, Louangphrabang, Oudomxai, Phongsali, Salavan, Savannakhet, Viangchan (Vientiane)*, Viangchan, Xaignabouli, Xekong, Xiangkhoang
Constitutionpromulgated 14 August 1991; amended in 2003

Legal systembased on traditional customs, French legal norms and procedures, and socialist practice; has not accepted compulsory ICJ jurisdiction

Suffrage18 years of age; universal
Executive branchchief of state: President Lt. Gen. CHOUMMALI Saignason (since 8 June 2006); Vice President BOUN-GNANG Volachit (since 8 June 2006)
head of government: Prime Minister BOUASONE Bouphavanh (since 8 June 2006); Deputy Prime Ministers Maj. Gen. ASANG Laoli (since May 2002), Lt. Gen. DOUANGCHAI Phichit (since 8 June 2006), SOMSAVAT Lengsavat (since 26 February 1998), and THONGLOUN Sisoulit (since 27 March 2001)
cabinet: Ministers appointed by president, approved by National Assembly
elections: president and vice president elected by National Assembly for five-year terms; election last held 8 June 2006 (next to be held in 2011); prime minister nominated by president and elected by National Assembly for five-year term
election results: CHOUMMALI Saignason elected president; BOUN-GNANG Volachit elected vice president; percent of National Assembly vote - 100%; BOUASONE Bouphavanh elected prime minister; percent of National Assembly vote - 97%

Legislative branchunicameral National Assembly (115 seats; members elected by popular vote from a list of candidates selected by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party to serve five-year terms)
elections: last held 30 April 2006 (next to be held in 2011)
election results: percent of vote by party - NA; seats by party - LPRP 113, independents 2

Judicial branchPeople's Supreme Court (the president of the People's Supreme Court is elected by the National Assembly on the recommendation of the National Assembly Standing Committee; the vice president of the People's Supreme Court and the judges are appointed by the National Assembly Standing Committee)

Political pressure groups and leadersNA
International organization participationADB, APT, ARF, ASEAN, CP, EAS, FAO, G-77, IBRD, ICAO, ICRM, IDA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, ILO, IMF, Interpol, IOC, IPU, ISO (subscriber), ITU, MIGA, NAM, OIF, OPCW, PCA, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, UNWTO, UPU, WCO, WFTU, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTO (observer)
Flag descriptionthree horizontal bands of red (top), blue (double width), and red with a large white disk centered in the blue band

Economy - overviewThe government of Laos, one of the few remaining one-party Communist states, began decentralizing control and encouraging private enterprise in 1986. The results, starting from an extremely low base, were striking - growth averaged 6% per year from 1988-2008 except during the short-lived drop caused by the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997. Despite this high growth rate, Laos remains a country with an underdeveloped infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. It has no railroads, a rudimentary road system, and limited external and internal telecommunications, though the government is sponsoring major improvements in the road system with support from Japan and China. Electricity is available in urban areas and in many rural districts. Subsistence agriculture, dominated by rice, accounts for about 40% of GDP and provides 80% of total employment. The government depends upon aid from international donors for over 80% of its capital investment. The economy has until recently benefited from high foreign investment in hydropower, mining, and construction. The fiscal crisis of late 2008, and the rapid drop in commodity prices - especially copper - has slowed these investments. Several policy changes since 2004 may help spur growth. Laos, which gained Normal Trade Relations status with the US in 2004, is taking steps to join the World Trade Organization. Related trade policy reforms will improve the business environment. On the fiscal side, a value-added tax (VAT) regime, which began with a few large businesses in early 2009, should slowly help streamline the government's inefficient tax system. Economic prospects will improve gradually as the administration continues to simplify investment procedures and as a more competitive banking sector extends credit to small farmers and small entrepreneurs. The government appears committed to raising the country's profile among investors. Foreign donors have praised the Lao government for its efforts to improve the investment regime. The World Bank has declared that Laos' goal of graduating from the UN Development Program's list of least-developed countries by 2020 could be achievable.
GDP (purchasing power parity)$14.01 billion (2008 est.)
$13.04 billion (2007 est.)
$12.13 billion (2006 est.)
note: data are in 2008 US dollars
GDP (official exchange rate)$5.374 billion (2008 est.)
GDP - real growth rate(%)7.5% (2008 est.)
7.5% (2007 est.)
8.3% (2006 est.)
GDP - per capita (PPP)$2,100 (2008 est.)
$2,000 (2007 est.)
$1,900 (2006 est.)
note: data are in 2008 US dollars
GDP - composition by sector(%)agriculture: 39.2%
industry: 34.3%
services: 26.5% (2008 est.)
Labor force2.1 million (2006 est.)

Labor force - by occupation(%)agriculture: 80%
industry and services: 20% (2005 est.)
Unemployment rate(%)2.4% (2005 est.)
Population below poverty line(%)30.7% (2005 est.)
Household income or consumption by percentage share(%)lowest 10%: 3.4%
highest 10%: 28.5% (2002)
Distribution of family income - Gini index34.6 (2002)
37 (1997)
Budgetrevenues: $811.6 million
expenditures: $955.9 million (2008 est.)
Inflation rate (consumer prices)(%)8.6% (2008 est.)
4.5% (2007 est.)

Stock of money$NA (31 December 2008)
$327.9 million (31 December 2007)
Stock of quasi money$NA (31 December 2008)
$717.9 million (31 December 2007)
Stock of domestic credit$NA (31 December 2008)
$285.8 million (31 December 2007)
Economic aid - recipient$379 million (2006 est.)

Agriculture - productssweet potatoes, vegetables, corn, coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, tea, peanuts, rice; water buffalo, pigs, cattle, poultry
Industriescopper, tin, gold, and gypsum mining; timber, electric power, agricultural processing, construction, garments, cement, tourism

Industrial production growth rate(%)11% (2008 est.)

Current account balance-$52 million (2008 est.)
$107.3 million (2007 est.)
Exports$1.163 billion (2008 est.)
$922.7 million (2007 est.)

Exports - commodities(%)wood products, coffee, electricity, tin, copper, gold
Exports - partners(%)Thailand 35.5%, Vietnam 15.5%, China 8.5% (2008)
Imports$1.384 billion (2008 est.)
$1.065 billion (2007 est.)

Imports - commodities(%)machinery and equipment, vehicles, fuel, consumer goods
Imports - partners(%)Thailand 68.5%, China 10.5%, Vietnam 5.8% (2008)

Reserves of foreign exchange and gold$803 million (31 December 2008 est.)
$540 million (31 December 2007 est.)
Debt - external$3.179 billion (2006)

Exchange rateskips (LAK) per US dollar - 8,760.69 (2008 est.), 9,658 (2007), 10,235 (2006), 10,820 (2005), 10,585.5 (2004)

Currency (code)kip (LAK)

Telephones - main lines in use97,600 (2008)
Telephones - mobile cellular1.822 million (2008)
Telephone systemgeneral assessment: service to general public is poor but improving; the government relies on a radiotelephone network to communicate with remote areas
domestic: multiple service providers; mobile cellular usage growing rapidly; combined fixed-line and mobile-cellular subscribership approaching 30 per 100 persons
international: country code - 856; satellite earth station - 1 Intersputnik (Indian Ocean region) and a second to be developed by China (2008)
Internet country code.la
Internet users130,000 (2008)
Airports41 (2009)
Pipelines(km)refined products 540 km (2008)
Roadways(km)total: 29,811 km
paved: 4,010 km
unpaved: 25,801 km (2006)

Military branchesLao People's Armed Forces (LPAF): Lao People's Army (LPA; includes Riverine Force), Air Force (2009)
Military service age and obligation(years of age)15 years of age for compulsory military service; minimum 18-month conscript service obligation (2006)
Manpower available for military servicemales age 16-49: 1,549,774
females age 16-49: 1,570,702 (2008 est.)
Manpower fit for military servicemales age 16-49: 1,023,205
females age 16-49: 1,085,197 (2009 est.)
Manpower reaching militarily significant age annuallymale: 75,310
female: 74,498 (2009 est.)
Military expenditures(% of GDP)0.5% of GDP (2006)
Military - noteserving one of the world's least developed countries, the Lao People's Armed Forces (LPAF) is small, poorly funded, and ineffectively resourced; its mission focus is border and internal security, primarily in countering ethnic Hmong insurgent groups; together with the Lao People's Revolutionary Party and the government, the Lao People's Army (LPA) is the third pillar of state machinery, and as such is expected to suppress political and civil unrest and similar national emergencies, but the LPA also has upgraded skills to respond to avian influenza outbreaks; there is no perceived external threat to the state and the LPA maintains strong ties with the neighboring Vietnamese military (2008)
Disputes - internationalSoutheast Asian states have enhanced border surveillance to check the spread of avian flu; talks continue on completion of demarcation with Thailand but disputes remain over islands in the Mekong River; concern among Mekong Commission members that China's construction of dams on the Mekong River will affect water levels

Electricity - production(kWh)3.075 billion kWh (2007 est.)
Electricity - production by source(%)fossil fuel: 1.4%
hydro: 98.6%
nuclear: 0%
other: 0% (2001)
Electricity - consumption(kWh)3.068 billion kWh (2007 est.)
Electricity - exports(kWh)268 million kWh (2007 est.)
Electricity - imports(kWh)475.9 million kWh (2007 est.)
Oil - production(bbl/day)0 bbl/day (2008 est.)
Oil - consumption(bbl/day)3,000 bbl/day (2008 est.)
Oil - exports(bbl/day)0 bbl/day (2007 est.)
Oil - imports(bbl/day)3,080 bbl/day (2007 est.)
Oil - proved reserves(bbl)0 bbl (1 January 2009 est.)
Natural gas - production(cu m)0 cu m (2008 est.)
Natural gas - consumption(cu m)0 cu m (2008 est.)
Natural gas - exports(cu m)0 cu m (2008)
Natural gas - proved reserves(cu m)0 cu m (1 January 2009 est.)
HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate(%)0.2% (2007 est.)
HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS5,500 (2007 est.)
HIV/AIDS - deathsfewer than 100 (2007 est.)
Major infectious diseasesdegree of risk: very high
food or waterborne diseases: bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever
vectorborne diseases: dengue fever and malaria
note: highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in this country; it poses a negligible risk with extremely rare cases possible among US citizens who have close contact with birds (2008) (2009)
Literacy(%)definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 68.7%
male: 77%
female: 60.9% (2001 est.)

School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education)(years)total: 9 years
male: 10 years
female: 8 years (2006)
Education expenditures(% of GDP)3% of GDP (2006)








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