When Stora Enso started to consider establishing tree plantations in Laos a decade ago, we faced a situation quite different to the conditions in any other Asian country where we’ve operated.
Laos has one of the lowest per capita gross national income levels anywhere in the world, and its landscapes and people still carry scars from the war in Southeast Asia. Between 1964 and 1973 more ordnance was dropped on Laos than was dropped during the whole of World War II.
Operating in Laos also required a completely new approach to tree-growing. So we started to develop a new land use model that truly benefits local farmers as well as our company.
This model has been built together with the farmers, by looking into local realities. This entailed rethinking the whole process of establishing responsible tree plantations. In Laos we had to start by making the land safe through the removal of unexploded bombs – a completely new undertaking for a company with Nordic roots.
Our trial plantation project is located in the Saravane and Savannakhet provinces of Southern Laos. The venture was established in 2006 to test how eucalyptus and acacia trees grow here. The trial project is only small-scale – covering about 3,000 hectares in all – but it’s still an interesting testing ground. The plantations lie right on the "Ho Chi Minh Trail", in an area with a long history of warfare and hardship, where local communities are still suffering from the after effects of the war.
During the war, more than two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos. Many of them failed to detonate. Bombs and cluster bombs dating back to this period war still regularly explode around Southern Laos each year, killing and injuring local villagers. But these bombs are not just a safety hazard – they also cause malnutrition by making traditional shifting cultivation dangerous.
Building trust and mutual understanding with local communities doesn’t happen overnight, and it must involve more listening than instructing.
Stora Enso's responsibility model in Laos is built from the ground up. Before planting any trees, we clear all unexploded bombs from the plantation area. As other plantation companies in Laos are not yet doing this, Stora Enso is a real pioneer when it comes to establishing such safe areas. The tree plantations are then planned to enable local farmers to grow rice and cash crops between the trees. Our agroforestry model is based on wide spacing, meaning that rice can be grown between the trees during the first two years, and other more shade-tolerant crops can then be grown during the rest of the seven-year rotation period. Such plantations give local people a welcome opportunity to grow food safely. The resulting rice yields are better than those obtained through traditional shifting cultivation methods, due to the use of improved agricultural practices and higher quality seeds.
This model also benefits the environment since it reduces areas needed for shifting cultivation and enhances restoration of native forest over the long run. While shifting cultivation is an integral part of local culture, it is practiced in ever-shortening swidden cycles, which has led to land degradation and reduced yields. By stabilizing land use through more productive and permanent agroforestry systems, the model creates favorable conditions also for recovery of the native vegetation.
We started testing this model in a smaller land area – and it has taken us years to get it right. One of the lessons we’ve learnt is that engaging local communities in a completely new set-up like this takes time and effort. Building trust and mutual understanding with local communities doesn’t happen overnight, and it must involve more listening than instructing. The fact that many local dialects are spoken in the area didn’t make the situation any easier. It has been crucial for us to understand how the villagers see their communities and the surrounding landscapes, and what they actually want. Some villages have not shown any interest in growing rice on our plantations, and we have respected that. Others eventually became convinced by the idea, though this could take several years.
Though it has taken time to build trust, we've gradually managed to set a benchmark for tree plantations in Laos. Our plantations will also provide a setting for discussions on how to integrate multiple land uses for improved livelihoods during the New Generation Plantations study tour in October.
We're now working to create enabling conditions for expanding this model and our plantations into new areas. Whether this happens or not will depend largely on factors outside our control. However, we believe that by providing training and clearing explosives from agricultural land we can, in any case, leave a lasting positive legacy in Laos which can never be taken away.