REDD+ in Laos: Think big or fail

"A single agri-business concession, large dam or mine can result in clearing thousands of hectares of forest."
REDD+ implementation in Laos needs to expand dramatically, or it won’t have a significant impact. Alex Drainville.

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REDD+ is at a crossroads in Lao PDR, and needs to “think bigger” to survive.

As the anti-deforestation project nears its eighth birthday, that’s the blunt claim from a new study that says tough decisions, choices and tradeoffs must be made to avoid further lost opportunities and indeed, further deforestation.

“Thinking bigger,” according to study authors Michael Dwyer, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Micah Ingalls of Cornell University, means that REDD+ interventions in Laos really need to change, both in kind and in scale.

“The limited ambition of REDD projects in Laos so far is apparent in the choices of which forest-loss drivers to take on,” says Dwyer, the study’s lead author.

The study outlines that the Lao projects have focused on “smallholder-related drivers like shifting cultivation and small-scale agricultural expansion” and avoided engaging the bigger forest loss drivers like agro-industrial concessions, mining concessions and energy and transportation infrastructure.

While there is forest loss in protected areas, there’s just not as much as people thought there would be

Michael Dwyer

These industrial drivers often involve significantly more deforestation than the activities tackled by current REDD initiatives says Dwyer, where “a single agri-business concession, large dam or mine can result in clearing thousands of hectares of forest.”

Smallholder agriculture, by contrast, often leaves a much smaller deforestation footprint.


“The carbon measurement experts have come around to saying that in the rotational model of shifting cultivation, there’s really not that much net forest loss,” says Dwyer.

Nonetheless, the most common targets for REDD interventions in Laos are these very smallholders.

The study attributes this choice in part to what Dwyer calls “the ongoing effort to marry conservation funding with REDD activities, the longstanding view that shifting cultivation is a problem that needs to be reformed, and the political-economic challenges of trying to change infrastructure projects and land concessions.”

Many of the project developers, he says, are NGOs or donors who want to do conservation in addition to climate change mitigation. “Paired with government interest in funding protected area management and widespread rhetoric that shifting cultivators are the main driver of forest loss, this leads to a focus on protected areas as sites for REDD projects.”

Smallholders too seek their livelihoods in such areas, or near them—sometimes due to land scarcity created by agro-industrial concessions.

If you want to really engage the industrial drivers of forest loss, you have to come at it from the perspective of economic planning

Michael Dwyer

Changing the behavior of these smallholders is therefore perceived as a way to kill two birds with one stone.

“And while there is forest loss in protected areas,” Dwyer says. “There’s just not as much as people thought there would be. Again, that’s about the optics of shifting cultivation.”

Another reason is economic.


Changing the behavior of a select group of smallholders is one thing; changing the trajectory of a poor country’s industrial development is quite another.

The former can be studied in miniature, and in relative isolation. The latter requires access to plans, budgets, maps and most importantly, high-level decision makers.

“This is the thorny thing with piloting REDD,” says Dwyer. “You take small amounts of money into the field and see what you can do, but if you want to really engage the industrial drivers of forest loss, you have to come at it from the perspective of economic planning. And to do that, you have to bring a lot more money to the table.”

How much more? The study doesn’t answer that question, but it is clear that in financial terms, REDD is massively outgunned.

“Right now,” says Dwyer, “Laos’ forests are being emptied through a mix of selective logging and clearance for infrastructure.” And while REDD has never really hoped to compete in strict economic terms with this sort of behavior, it may nonetheless provide a platform for incentivizing change in how forests are used for development.

“By not engaging industrial drivers of forest loss,” the researchers write, “REDD misses an important chance to engage with high-level economic decision making; this has implications not only for climate mitigation, but for efforts to make Laos’s current trajectory of natural resource-intensive development socially, environmentally and economically more sustainable.”


These realities circle back to the wider issues for REDD.

Important among them is the question of the counterfactual scenario: of “what would have happened,” how much forest would have been lost or conserved, without the presence of the REDD+ intervention.

Determining realistic and meaningful starting points is a major concern for investigators, “particularly given the difficulties, not just for REDD practitioners but even of some of their government counterparts, in gaining access to detailed development plans,” says Dwyer.

The report recommends that in considering the next five years of REDD, donors would do well to think bigger, both in terms of the amount of funding they bring to the table, and the partners within government with whom they engage.

This means seeing REDD not as a forest issue per se, but as a landscape-wide development issue that engages key policy areas such as land tenure, concession regulation, and the role of raw resource exports in the domestic economy.

“Some have been quick to judge REDD+ a failure,” when confronted with the macro-scale drivers of deforestation, says the study.

“Others point out that running headlong into the reality of development is precisely the point.”

For further information about CIFOR’s work with REDD+ in Lao PDR please contact Michael Dwyer at

CIFOR’s research on REDD+ in Lao PDR is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Community forestry Rights