The increasing global demand for natural rubber in the past few years, is fueling the massive expansion of large-scale rubber plantations in Laos. The first consequence is a wave of conflicts with local communities. About 80% of the Laos people is relying directly on the forest for their physical, cultural and spiritual well-being.
In 2010, commercial rubber plantations extended globally on 9.8 million hectares, but by 2018 they will use about 13.8 million hectares in 2018. About 90% of the rubber production is concentrated in Asia, mainly in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, mostly through smallholders. The production is mainly absorbed by the tire industry, closely linked to the motor vehicle industry, regionally concentrated in China. The expansion boom is mainly through large-scale plantations and one of the countries in the Mekong region where expansion is taking place rapidly is Laos.
In Laos over 60 different ethnic groups live in the rural hilly and mountainous areas. Rural communities mainly depend on forests for their physical, cultural and spiritual well-being. Since the end of the 1980's, when the Laos government opened the land for the global market economy, forest communities have suffered from commercial logging and timber exports.
In 1990, the country adopted the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), pushed by the World Bank and FAO in several countries. One of the TFAP proposals was to invest in tree plantations. Together with the plantation companies, the government promoted the tree plantations – which encroached into peoples' land, forest and livelihood – promising jobs and income for the rural population.
While some investments involve local and smallholder capital, about 75% of all plantations are large scale and set up by transnational companies from China, Vietnam and Thailand. According to the Ministry of Commerce, by 2007, 40 companies were growing rubber over an area of 182,900 hectares, granted to them through land concessions.
The plantation boom have serious negative impacts on the local communities. First of all, land conflicts are created because the concessions granted to the companies generally overlap with lands used by communities. In Laos, land ownership is held by the government, but customary right to use the land on a permanent basis is recognized in laws and regulations. However, village people still are constrained to get the land titles that ensures their customary land right on a permanent basis. Most often, local people are not aware of such right as the government hardly informs them of it.
In many cases, when the government grants a concession, the company contacts the local village leader to inform him where they intend to plant rubber and get support for the plan. The original target areas often are the fellow lands of the upland rice areas, which have been targeted for a long time by the Laos government to be erased under the “Shifting Cultivation Stabilization Programme”. Allured by promises of jobs for the community, and pressed by the blame on the traditional upland rice shifting cultivation practice, community leaders occasionally agree signing a document that certifies that “permission” has been given for the plantation.
But when the company starts clearing the land and planting the trees, the community usually finds that very few jobs have been created and most of them last the first years of operation. Moreover, communities complain that the jobs are badly paid and that when pesticides are applied, no protection equipment is offered to them with the consequent severe impacts on their health.
Soon after the trees have been planted, more impacts appear. Then, the community really gets aware of what the project of the company is about. The areas occupied by the company are most often mixed forest areas used by communities, for example, those where they collect mushrooms, bamboo and other forest products. Besides, the pesticides contaminates the environment, especially rice bogs close to the plantations.
The increasing industry demand for natural rubber in the past years that drives the expansion of rubber plantation also increases the number of conflicts in Laos between companies and local communities.
The Laos government plan to convert another 300,000 hectares of forests into rubber plantations in the next decade.