Forest fiasco

Forest fiasco TWO large-scale forest projects slated to begin this year, aim to focus on Laos' forest resources more extensively. The projects - the World Bank's (WB) Forest Management and Conservation Project (FOMACOP), and the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) industrial tree plantations - are being criticised for posing serious ecological and social threats.

The FOMACOP is a forest-aid package comprising a WB loan of us $8.7 million for forest management, a us $5.8 mil- lion grant from FINNIDA (the Finnish Development Aid Agency) and a us $5.6 million grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Under flak from international environmental groups and Laotian forestry officials since its inception two years ago, the WB'S final decision to approve funds was delayed four times until March 1994. Meanwhile, the plan underwent some revisions particularly the clause proposing the removal of tariffs on log exports. International environment groups claimed that tariff removal would actually hasten timber extraction and accelerate deforestation in Laos.

Currently, there is a 1990 ban on log and sawnwood exports in Laos, but finished wood products export is allowed. The ban was issued following the interference of Thai loggers into Laotian forests after Thailand closed its forests to logging concessions in January 1989.

FOMACop aims to introduce "scientific and sustainable logging" in natural forests to make existing logging more efficient and to control illegal logging. Current logging policy in Laos allows timber extraction from the potential reservoir areas of four large dams, accounting for 400,000 cu rn over four years.

In an interview with the Bangkok- based Nation newspaper, director of the watershed management unit of the Laotian forestry department, Chanthaviphone Inthavong, said that Laos, for the first time, will have a forestry management plan, instead of the usual quota-based logging.

According to Chanthaviphone, Laos' land use policy targets a forest cover increase from the present 47 per cent of the total land area to 70 per cent ofthe total land area. Ofthis, 12 million is alloted for timber production, and 2.8 million ha for fast-growing tree plantations.

NGOS claim that the ADB project would place farmers in debt since they will be encouraged to take hefty loans. Although there is a grace period ofseven years before the loans are repaid, the farmers will remain cash-strapped and land-less in the meanwhile. Moreover, 70 per cent of the loan is for the government to re-lend to the private sector and not the farmers.

But the ADB project mission leader, Marshuk Ali Shah, stated that the project would "bring into productive use unstocked/degraded forest lands which are currently unoccupied and largely underutilized and offer little other alternative use."

Premrudee Daoruang, working with a regional environmental group in Laos, states, "Forest conservation in Laos must begin with the farmers and local people dwelling in forest areas as they know their ecosystems and depend on them for their livelihood."

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