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Natural resources

Laos is a landlocked nation in Southeast Asia, northeast of Thailand, west of Vietnam, that covers 236,800 square kilometers in the center of the Southeast Asian peninsula, is surrounded by Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, the People's Republic of China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Its location has often made it a buffer between more powerful neighboring states, as well as a crossroads for trade and communication. Migration and international conflict have contributed to the present ethnic composition of the country and to the geographic distribution of its ethnic groups.

The road system is not extensive. However, a rudimentary network begun under French colonial rule and continued from the 1950s has provided an important means of increased intervillage communication, movement of market goods, and a focus for new settlements. In mid-1994, travel in most areas was difficult and expensive, and most Laotians traveled only limited distances, if at all. As a result of ongoing improvements in the road system during the early 1990s, however, it is expected that in the future villagers will more easily be able to seek medical care, send children to schools at district centers, and work outside the village.

Expanding commercial exploitation of forests, plans for additional hydroelectric facilities, foreign demands for wild animals and nonwood forest products for food and traditional medicines, and a growing population have brought new and increasing attention to the forests. Traditionally, forests have been important sources of wild foods, herbal medicines, and timber for house construction. Even into the 1990s, the government viewed the forest as a valued reserve of natural products for noncommercial household consumption. Government efforts to preserve valuable hardwoods for commercial extraction have led to measures to prohibit swidden cultivation throughout the country. Further, government restrictions on clearing forestland for swidden cropping in the late 1980s, along with attempts to gradually resettle upland swidden farming villages (ban) to lowland locations suitable for paddy rice cultivation, had significant effects on upland villages. Traditionally, villages rely 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. At the same time, international concern about environmental degradation and the loss of many wildlife species unique to Laos has also prompted the government to consider the implications of these developments.

Natural resources: timber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold, gemstones, petroleum, and other resources of commercial importance.

Fishing in Laos

For many Laotians, freshwater fish are the principal source of protein; per capita consumption averages 5.1 kilograms annually. Fishpond culture had begun in the mid-1960s, and production--mainly carp raised in small home lots--grew an average 30 percent annually thereafter, the highest rate in Asia between 1975 and 1985. The Mekong districts in the south have especially high potential for greater increases in fish production. In the 1982-84 period, the average annual catch was 20,000 tons, all of which was consumed domestically.

Statistics summary

Laos is a sparsely populated mountainous country in mainland Southeast Asia. It is one of the most biodiverse countries in Asia with 172 mammals, 212 birds, 8286 higher plant species and many other faunal and floral species (IUCN, 2006). Using the national forest definition of >20% tree canopy cover, 9.8 million hectares or 41% of Lao PDR was forested in 2002 (DOF, 2005), and 9.5 million hectares or 40% was forested in 2010 (DOF, 2011a). Using the FAO definition of >10% canopy cover, the forested area rises to 16.4 million hectares or 69% of the total area in 2002 (FAO, 2010). Major forest types in 2002 included upper mixed deciduous (56%), upper dry evergreen (14%), and dry dipterocarp (13%) forest. Plantations were a minor component of the landscape at that time but are on the rise, much of it funded by foreign investment. Forest cover declined rapidly at the rate of 134,000 hectares per annum (roughly 1.2-1.3% p.a.) from 1992 to 2002, and at roughly 35,000 hectares per annum since then. Forest quality also deteriorated with dense forest declining from 29% in 1992 to 8.2% in 2002 and open forest increasing from 16% to 24.5%. Main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation are forest conversion to tree and agricultural plantations, shifting cultivation, illegal logging, mining, infrastructure and hydropower development (DOF, 2010).

The economy registered an average annual GDP growth of more than 7% in recent years with 8.4% in 2010 (World Bank, 2011). The agriculture-forestry sector accounted for 30.4% of the GDP in 2010 and is the largest contributor to national GHG emissions (MPI, 2010). Laos has 49 ethnic groups and a large number of sub-groups whose livelihoods range from hunting and gathering to various forms of swidden farming in the uplands and wet-rice farming in the plains (King and van de Walle, 2010). 

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