How can we plant trees for a sustainable future in Laos?

June 1, 2021

Photo by: SAFE Ecosystems Project Lao PDR

This year, the Government of Lao PDR has pledged to plant trees covering 36,950 hectares of land for National Arbour Day on 1 June, with the aim of covering 70% of total land (or 16.6 million hectares) with forests by 2025. The nationwide campaign will cultivate 31,000 hectares of trees for commercial plantations and community areas and 5,500 hectares for the restoration of open or degraded forest lands. This will result in some wins for the economy and contributes in part towards the national climate and sustainability goals in the revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). In the spirit of Arbour Day, we should also consider the value of long-living trees to our ecosystem, economy and future generations.

Laos currently has about 62% of forest cover, which is a high percentage compared to many other countries. Conserving these existing forests and their biodiversity – trees that have been absorbing carbon and mitigating climate change for years – will provide continual benefits for generations, far outweighing other strategies. Commercial plantations such as Eucalyptus or Acacia plantations which are cultivated solely for wood products, pulp, paper or similar materials are usually harvested for a period of 15 to 20 years, causing the trees to release much of the carbon they have stored. However, when managed sustainably, commercial plantations can protect natural forests, provide employment for local communities and contribute to the national economy.

As the Presidency of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and the G7 this year, the UK is leading unprecedented pledges to conserve and protect forests and biodiversity, setting the pace for monumental global action by the end of this year. Even with conservation efforts in place, forests around the world are under increasing threat due to population growth, rising demand for timber products, and unsustainable livelihood practices and development policies. There is a real need for more collaboration with like-minded stakeholders to implement forest restoration for the long-term.

The potential for progress is clear. Agroforestry in Laos – as piloted by 55,000 trees this year through UNDP’s SAFE Ecosystems Project, which is funded by GEF and donor countries like the UK – combines nitrogen-fixing native tree species with simple soil improvement techniques to significantly improve rural rice cultivation, hence eliminating a factor of forest land encroachment. Similarly, strategically planting native tree species on slopes or higher areas can significantly reduce soil erosion and enable swidden agriculture land to regenerate faster.

In addition, peri-urban forestry planting within village areas, when implemented with planned agricultural activities, can provide economic opportunities, animal feed and building materials: therefore preventing damage caused by free-range livestock, unsustainable non-timber forest product collection and annual dry season forests fires that emit vast quantities of carbon. Rural communities would reap the growing benefits following these best practices and will have a genuine contribution towards protecting, nurturing, and enabling planted trees to grow as part of a forested landscape.

Laos ranks among the top ecotourism destinations in Southeast Asia, with its tourism sector accounting for 13% of the national economy prior to COVID-19. Ensuring its National Biodiversity Conservation Areas, rich forested landscapes and biodiversity are sustainably managed should continue to be a national priority.

Additionally, innovative opportunities in the private sector - including specialised green financing, sustainable harvesting of premium agriculture and non-timber forest products, and continued development of Lao’s ecotourism industry – will bring in significant revenue for economic recovery and development.

National Arbour Day (1 June) and World Environment Day (5 June) highlight the importance of ‘ecosystem restoration’ and echo the global messages urging the sustainable use of natural resources. In the pursuit of a sustainable future, we need to create greater awareness of environmental conservation in order to take a balanced approach to forest restoration while continuing to safeguard Laos’ forested landscapes.  Imagine our strength in numbers – if every person in Laos were to plant a native tree for Arbour Day, Laos could restore as many as 7.7 million trees and protect up to 17,460 hectares of land for generations to come – all in a single day’s work!


Jointly Written by:

H.E. John Pearson, UK Ambassador to Lao PDR

Ms. Ricarda Rieger, UNDP Lao PDR Resident Representative

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.