High population growth, limited arable land, and soaring rice prices in Lao People’s Democratic Republic mean that land access is critical for food security. At the same time, there is immense pressure to convert forests and small-scale agricultural land into commercial plantations for rubber, coffee, and other valuable crops. Together, these factors are significant threats not only to people, but to wildlife and biodiversity as well. They are also resulting in the emergence of new tensions between people and wildlife across the Lao landscape. While these tensions remain latent, they could lead to instability in the near future. For example, land use planning and land allocation programs have frequently been implemented too rapidly and without sufficient resources, often resulting in multiple claims to a single piece of land (see “The Effect of Village Re-location on Previous Land Allocation in Phonexay, Luang Prabang and Namo, Oudomxay” and “Hanging in the Balance: Equity in Community-Based Natural Resource Management in Asia”). The scarcity of agricultural land—exacerbated by competing claims to the same parcel—can drive people to intrude on protected areas.
The Nam Kading National Protected Area (NPA) in central Laos’ Bolikhamxay Province is home to a herd of wild elephants. Since 2005, the elephants have increasingly encroached on Keng Bit, a village located at the edge of the NPA whose inhabitants are primarily rice farmers who also pan for gold. When the elephants enter Keng Bit during the rice-growing season, they destroy crops, endangering the village’s food security. If raiding increases in the future, the villagers could decide to kill the elephants to eliminate the threat to their crops.
To prevent human-wildlife tensions from escalating, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is collaborating with community leaders to develop conflict prevention measures. In May 2008, I joined a WCS field team that was working with people from Keng Bit and a neighboring village to develop solutions to keep the elephants away from the fields. One project staff member told me that unless action is taken this year, the human-wildlife conflict could threaten the size of the wild elephant herd, especially as people continue to move into wildlife habitat. By addressing this potential conflict early on, the project hopes to promote food security and keep both humans and elephants safe. It also seeks to build a constituency that will understand the links between biodiversity and their own livelihoods and advocate for conservation and sustainable development.
Nascent environmental conflicts need to be addressed before they become too difficult for local communities to resolve. In some cases, the traditional mechanisms for resolving conflict have degenerated as modern forms of governance and ownership have been introduced. Whether addressing human-wildlife conflict or human-human conflict, we must identify conflict prevention models that build bridges between traditional social networks and modern policies. Approaching environmental conflict proactively will not only serve the interests of those directly impacted by a potential conflict, but will also advance the country’s larger development and conservation goals. Laos presents an opportunity to develop and test a variety of innovative conflict prevention techniques.
Kimberly Marion Suiseeya is a researcher based in Vientiane, Laos. She thanks the David L. Boren Graduate Fellowship for their support for her research on participatory management in Laos’ National Protected Areas. She also thanks the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bolikhamxay Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office for providing her with the opportunity to see a participatory project in action.
Photos copyright Kimberly Suiseeya Top: A Hmong village in Pak Ou district in Luang Prabang, with fallow upland rice fields (upper right). Bottom: Looking down the Nam Kading river in the direction of Keng Bit, with “bomb boats” made out of old fuel casings.