Forest Carbon Asia Articles

Laos issues its first communal forest land titles: National workshop discusses lessons learnt

Articles - By Unna Chokkalingam on Nov 09, 2011


In recent landmark developments, Laos issued its first communal forest land titles on an NGO development project site. Mr. Chanthaviphone Inthavong of the National Land Management Authority laid out the background and government plans for land titling including communal titling, while local government agencies presented their experiences from the case study. Next steps?


Over the last centuries, tenure over forest land and resources has largely rested with the state over much of Asia. Community access was often prohibited or restricted to minimal subsistence use of lesser-value products in colonial and post-colonial regimes across the region. The last decades have seen a movement towards promoting greater community rights over and benefits from forest land and resources, in an effort to enhance the socio-economic conditions of rural communities. Clear and secure tenure over forest land and resources is also a pre-requisite for the implementation of the new international REDD+ proposal to mitigate climate change by reducing ongoing deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.


In Laos, land and natural resources are considered the common property of the national community and the government is in charge of allocating land to the private sector, communities and other actors. So far, forest land allocation has largely been limited to leases and concessions for plantation development by private enterprises. Communal land titles have not been issued due to various reasons, a key one being the lack of a detailed technical concept. In recent landmark developments, Laos issued its first communal forest land titles in a development project site in Sangthong District.


A recent national workshop “Workshop on communal land titling: The case of Sangthong District” on October 6, 2011, explored the background, lessons learnt from the case studies, and how best to move forward with clarifying and securing tenure over communal forest land across Laos. The workshop was organized by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, the Gender and Development Group (GDG) and the Land Issues Working Group (LIWG) which is a network of mostly international and local civil society organization staff and other individuals working on land issues in Lao PDR. It was attended by representatives from the National Land Management Authority, local government agencies who worked on the communal land titling cases, LIWG members and interested others.


Mr. Chanthaviphone Inthavong, Acting Director of the Information Research Center of the National Land Management Authority/Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, presented the background and policy on communal land titling in Laos. The first National Forestry Conference in 1989 stated the need to have clear tenure over every piece of forest land for sound management of the same. This resulted in the first Land Use Planning and Land Allocation (LUP-LA) campaign which covered 2/3rd of the villages in the country but failed for numerous reasons and has to be redone.


There is now increasing foreign direct investment, promotion of tree plantations, more land concessions and land speculation leading to concern and conflict. If you developed the land by planting trees, then you could own the land. If there is no development, then tenure is blurry. The distinction between state and communal land is not clear. Issuance of land titles and systematic registration is required to consistently protect and manage the land resources.


The government plans to determine the land needs of different sectors and society to meet national development objectives, undertake macro and micro land use planning, allocate and register land rights, and establish a computerized national land information system. At the macro level, a spatially-explicit national land use master plan has been completed and awaits adoption. At the micro level, land use planning and allocation for agriculture, forestry and other purposes has been completed in 47 poverty districts based on numerous criteria. The next step is systematic land registration as state, communal or private land and spelling out of rights, values, uses and development interventions in each type. Guidelines and training material are being developed for communal land titling, and there are now a few case studies.


Mr. Lounthong Bounemany, Chief of the District Land Management Authority, and Mr. Bounhap from the District Agricultural and Forestry Office presented the first communal land titling case in Sangthong District. Mr. Bounemany described the overall land use planning in the district and activities carried out so far in the villages. “There are eight possible types of communal land including forest land, agricultural land and wetland,” he stated.


SNV, GDG and WWF have been supporting the bamboo handicraft producers in Sangthong district since 2007. “There was high deforestation and declining bamboo resources in the district,” said Mr. Bounhap, “Land use planning and forest management plans were prepared to secure a sustainable flow of bamboo and rattan resources for handicraft production.” Around 2010, SNV, DLMA and DAFO initiated the communal land titling process to secure the rights to the common forest resources and provide a legal basis for their sustainable management. In July-August 2011, temporary communal land titles were issued for village production forests in four villages in the district.


The villagers expected that the communal land titles would establish village ownership and help protect against future claims and allocation as lease or concessions to third parties. They also expect the titles to help in future certification of products for export and for claiming possible benefits from carbon credits (REDD+).


“Traditional rights are not physically fenced or demarcated and thus communal land is blurry. It’s a question of defining the boundary, of finding the traditional fence,” said Mr. Ekvinay Sayaraj, Head of the Research Division of LNRRIC/National Land Management Authority.


Ms. Dorith von Behaim from GIZ presented the systematic process of participatory land use planning adopted under the GIZ Land Management and Registration Project (LMRP). Steps involved are: a) Preparing the current land use map, b) preparing a land zoning map indicating the future management plan, c) preparing land ownership maps including communal land, and d) registering ownership on a computer-based cadastral map. The maps for the LMRP project sites have already been approved by the District Governor. Among the forest lands, the village use forest covers the largest area.


In the follow up discussions, Mr. Sayaraj clarified that the two cases had used very different approaches. “In Sangthong, only GPS marking was used and communal land titles were issued for land the villagers could benefit from. In the GIZ LMRP case, they did systematic land use planning of all land parcels using remote sensing and GIS,” he said.


Mr. Nishan Disanayake of CIDSE  enquired, “Is it possible to issue communal land titles for agricultural land as well?” “In short, yes, as per the law,” responded Mr. Sayaraj, “In detail, it depends on the communal use, how and what they use the land for. It could be agricultural land in the rainy season and something else in the dry season. Also in the past numerous villages shared certain land areas and now negotiation is required for land titling.” Mr. Souvanhpheng Phommasane, a senior adviser at SNV indicated that they planned to pilot communal land titling for 50 hectares of agricultural land.


Ms. Elizabeth Mann, consultant on land issues, queried, “Will all areas with communal land titles be taxed? What if a woman goes to collect fuelwood? Who will be responsible for paying the taxes”? Mr. Inthavong responded that there was a clear government policy that there was no taxation for forest areas under communal management. These were resources meant for community welfare and proceeds could go into village development funds for village use.


However, Ms. von Behaim pointed out that tax exemption for communal land was good news for villages but bad news for district authorities. “Who will pay for the technical survey of such lands?” she enquired, “this is an obstacle for communal land titling on a large-scale.” In response to a question on whether the development of payments for environmental services (PES) such as carbon sequestration will also be tax exempt in communal forests, Mr. Inthavong indicated that they did not know yet and it required a policy study.


“Do they have to be associations, cooperatives or some registered group to receive a communal land title”?” Mr. Inthavong indicated that there was no clear answer yet on whose name should appear on the title since these were the first cases. “The village head is nominated by the government and not elected by the village. So far only communal plantations have some sort of group or association but there is no concrete field data and a policy study is required.”


“Do you recommend replicating the communal land titling experience from Sangthong in other areas and projects?” enquired Joost Foppes of LIWG. “We first need to discuss and build a policy framework for a systematic process. We have only two cases and cannot expand these experiences to the whole of Laos given the diverse landscapes and ethnic composition,” responded Mr. Inthavong. “Please provide us with the needed information or help us collect it. We need a broader technical workshop to pull together the resources.”


Please click here to view the minutes.


Presentations of the workshop

1. Remarks on  policy and background of communal land titling by Mr. Chanthaviphone, NLMA

2. Communal land titling in Sangthong district by Mr. Lounthong, DLMA and Mr. Bounhap, DAFO - English version,  Lao version

3. Lessons learned from the Participatory Action Research by Mr. Ekvinay, NLMA

4. Communal Land Security Approaches under GIZ/LMRP by Mrs. Dorith, GIZ


Keywords: Asia, communal land titling, Communities, GDG, GIZ, Land Issues Working Group, land tenure, Laos, LIWG, NLMA, SNV, village forest land

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