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Country profile - Laos

laos

Without rice, you can't do anything - or so they say in the mountains of northern Laos. The good news is that this landlocked country of 6 million people has recently achieved, for the first time in its modern history, national self-sufficiency in this all-important staple grain. The bad news is that regional harvest shortfalls remain endemic in some areas, especially in the north. This condemns hundreds of thousands of people to endure the pre-harvest 'hungry months' that are the local measure of poverty, a family hungry for only two months being better off than another hungry for three. Poor transport frustrates the redistribution of surplus rice from the south.

Even where rice is sufficient, much remains to be done to improve living conditions in this South-east Asian Shangri-la, which entered recorded history in the middle of the 14th century as the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. Today, 39 per cent of the population is considered poor, and life expectancy is 55 years. Only two out of three adults - and little more than half of women - can read. Laos ranks 135th of 175 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, which measures wealth among other quality-of-life indicators.

Legacy of war

Like neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia, fellow former colonies in French Indochina, Laos still struggles to overcome a legacy of war and ideologically driven upheaval. From the Japanese occupation in the Second World War until the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975, armed conflict has afflicted the country more often than not. In addition to its own protracted and convoluted power struggles, Laos suffered heavy bombing in the 1970s as US forces pounded the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of military supply routes running from North Vietnam through the eastern portions of nominally neutral Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Today, unexploded ordinance and landmines affect the safe use of half of all farmland in Laos.

Political repression and harsh economic policies saw 10 per cent of the population flee Laos in the years following 1975. Most of the refugees were resettled from Thailand to other countries, including a quarter million accepted by the US between 1975 and 1996. Meanwhile, the Lao government gradually dismantled its re-education camps and released most political prisoners. The remaining refugees in Thailand and China started to return home voluntarily, and in 2001 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees closed its Lao office.

Once entirely reliant on the Soviet bloc and Vietnam, Laos has since the late 1980s made considerable progress toward relieving its political and economic isolation. Thailand and, increasingly, China are becoming important investors in Laos, which was admitted into the Association of South-east Asian Nations in 1997 and applied to join the World Trade Organization the following year. While concentrating on improving ties with its immediate neighbours, Laos has expanded diplomatic and aid relations with a number of countries further afield including Australia, France, India, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland.

Rice first and foremost

Agriculture accounts for half of Lao national economic output, directly supporting 80-85 per cent of its population. The main constraint to agricultural development in this mountainous country is a shortage of arable land - which amounts to only 4 per cent of the total, three-quarters of which is planted to rice. Despite having the lowest population density in South-east Asia, Laos must support five people with each hectare of cultivated land, or nearly double the Thai figure of three people.

The shortage of good land is especially acute in the north. There, an array of minority tribal groups - which, together with minorities in other regions, account for half of the national population - eke out a living from rice paddies clustered in valley bottoms and extensive hillside fields cleared by slash-and-burn.

Harvesting of young rice plants for transplanting (© FAO/H.Wagner)
Harvesting of young rice plants for transplanting
© FAO/H.Wagner

Farmers plant the hillsides with upland rice, a dry-field crop like wheat that offers low yield but is necessary to fill household rice deficits and popular for its eating quality. Most upland rice varieties produce large grains that become glutinous, or sticky, when steamed and are satisfyingly filling, which is important to people who eat little but rice. The problem is that rice depletes upland soils in only a year or two, requiring farmers to leave them fallow, ideally for a couple of decades. Population pressure has brought ever greater expanses of fragile sloping uplands under shifting cultivation, reducing forest cover in Laos from 70 per cent of land area in 1940 to less than 40 per cent today. Meanwhile, an ever shorter fallow cycle inadequately restores soil fertility and fails to purge weeds from the soil seed bank.

The sustainability challenge

Partly to limit soil erosion and wildlife habitat destruction, and partly to exert greater control over upland tribes still mistrusted for their wartime association with the US, the Lao government aims to wean its upland farmers from extensive slash-and-burn systems. To this end, it has tightened land allocations by limiting each family to 3 or 4 hectares of farmland. This allows only a year or two of fallow between crops of upland rice.

The challenge for farmers and agricultural researchers is to achieve widespread household food security in the uplands under these tight limitations. One approach is to improve the productivity of bunded, rain-flooded rice paddies - the so-called lowlands in the highlands - and so allow at least some farmers to forego upland rice in favour of environmentally sustainable perennial cash crops. A complementary approach is to develop high-yielding systems of upland rice rotated and interplanted with other crops that control erosion, restore fertility, and provide fodder for livestock or a marketable product.

In addition to the secondary crops listed in the box below, Laos is the world's third largest producer of opium, a dubious distinction that attracts foreign support for crop-substitution programmes. The animals raised are, in declining order of importance, pigs, cattle, buffalo and chickens. Perhaps surprisingly in a landlocked country, most of the animal protein in the Lao diet comes from fish.

A bright spot in the economic prospects of Laos is hydroelectric power. This, like fish, is drawn from the Mekong River and its tributaries, though accompanied by controversy over environmental concerns. In 2001, Laos exported to Thailand and Vietnam almost a third of the 1.317 billion kWh of electricity it generated that year.

Statistical information
  • Country: Lao People's Democratic Republic
  • Capital: Vientiane
  • Area: 236,800 sq km
  • Population: 6,068,117
  • Languages: Lao (official), French, English and various ethnic languages
  • Life expectancy: 53 for women, 57 for men
  • GDP: purchasing power parity $10.32 billion (2003 est.)
  • GDP per capita: purchasing power parity $1,700 (2003 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 49.4%, industry 24.5%, services 26.1% (2003 est.)
  • Major industries: tin and gypsum mining, timber, electric power, agricultural processing, construction, garments, tourism
  • Natural resources: timber, hydropower, gypsum, tin, gold, gemstones
  • Agricultural products: rice, sweet potatoes, vegetables, maize, coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, tea, groundnuts; water buffalo, pigs, cattle, poultry
  • Export commodities:garments, wood products, coffee, electricity, tin
  • Major export partners:Thailand 20.7%, Vietnam 15.8%, France 7.3%, Germany 5.3%, Belgium 4% (2003 est.)
  • Land use: arable land 3.8%, permanent crops 0.35%, other 95.85% (2001)

Date published: January 2005

 

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