• Indigenous peoples in Laos

    Indigenous peoples in Laos

Indigenous World 2020: Laos

With a population of just over 7 million,1,2 Laos – Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) – is the most ethnically diverse country in mainland Southeast Asia. The ethnic Lao, comprising around half of the population, dominate the country economically and culturally. There are, however, some provinces and districts where the number of Indigenous people exceeds that of the Lao and where their culture is prominent.

There are four ethnolinguistic families in Laos. Lao-Tai language-speaking groups represent two-thirds of the population. The other third speaks languages belonging to the Mon-Khmer, Sino-Tibetan and Hmong-Ew-Hmien families and are considered to be the Indigenous Peoples of Laos. Officially, all ethnic groups have equal status in Laos, and the concept of Indigenous Peoples is not recognised by the government, despite the fact that Laos voted in favour of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Lao government uses the term ethnic group to refer to Indigenous people.3

The Lao government currently recognises 160 ethnic subgroups within 50 ethnic groups. Indigenous Peoples, especially those who speak Hmong-Ew-Hmien languages, are unequivocally the most vulnerable groups in Laos. They face territorial, economic, cultural and political pressures and are experiencing various threats to their livelihoods. Their land and resources are increasingly under pressure from pro-investment government development policies and commercial natural resource exploitation. Indigenous people lagged behind the majority LaoTai at all economic levels. They have more limited access to healthcare, lower rates of education and less access to clean water and sanitation. Indigenous people relying on unimproved or surface water ranged from between 20 to 32.5%, compared to just 8.5% of Lao-Tai, and while only 13.9% of Lao-Tai practice open defecation, that rises to between 30.3 to 46.3% among Indigenous people.

Laos has ratified ICERD (1974) and ICCPR (2009). The Lao government, however, severely restricts fundamental rights, including freedom of speech (media), association, assembly and religion, and civil society is closely controlled. Thus, organisations openly focusing on Indigenous Peoples or using related terms in the Lao language are not allowed, while open discussions about Indigenous Peoples with the government can be sensitive, especially since the issue is seen as pertaining to special (human) rights.

During the 2015-2019 period, the Lao PDR has submitted four national reports including the ICCPR.

Indigenous people left aside national development

Although Laos is still counted among the least developed countries (LCDs), the country’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Southeast Asia, with an average annual growth rate of 8% over the last decade.4 Unfortunately, the country’s economic model isn’t helping poverty and inequality. As pointed out by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, the Lao government’s focus on resource extraction, large-scale infrastructure projects, land acquisition, and programmes to attract foreign investment does not necessarily result in the improvement of the situation of the country’s poor as “those living in poverty, ethnic minorities, and people in rural areas have seen very few of the benefits of the economic boom”.5 Alston stated that Laos focuses on large infrastructure and development projects, but resettlement, produced by these projects, may worsen poverty in the country: “Some resettlement outcomes are better than others, but there is not a single resettlement site in Laos that has restored livelihoods of affected people to a status equal to that of before people were moved”.6 The Lao government has rejected the findings of a UN report that claims the country’s economic model isn’t helping poverty and inequality.

Climate change

Due to the tropical setting, Laos is exposed to a range of natural hazards, including droughts, floods and storms, the costliest of which have taken place after 2009.

Between July and September 2019, Lao PDR suffered its worst floods in a decade, which affected more than 600,000 people in all 17 provinces and Vientiane.7 As their traditional agricultural systems are susceptible to flooding, drought and the late onset of the rainy seasons, Indigenous Peoples in Laos are especially vulnerable to natural disasters which over the past few years have been increasing in frequency and intensity.

To tackle the emerging threats, the government has incorporated disaster and climate risk management into policies, institutions and national development plans to enhance resilience of various sectors, including in agriculture and environment, housing and transport, and has strived to mainstream elements of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation activities across national development. The impacts of disasters are often most severe on the most vulnerable. Alongside economic impacts, the ripple effects of disasters on Indigenous Peoples include forced resettlement, stopping education, worsened food security, loss of employment opportunities and prostitution, among others, and Indigenous women are disproportionately affected.8 In 2019 the Lao government allocated 500 billion Lao Kip (around USD$56 million) towards disaster recovery. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) has taken important steps to better address and mainstream disaster risk reduction and management into agricultural planning, while recovery actions were addressed through ministry recovery plans and aligned with the national planning mechanisms, including the National Socio-Economic Development Plan.9 Meanwhile, in November 2019 ,the Board of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) approved a USD$10 million project to help build resilience towards flooding caused by climate change in Laos. The five-year project will be executed by Laos’ Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, with support from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).10 In December 2019, the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have reviewed the Strengthening Agro-climatic Monitoring and Information Systems (SAMIS) project, which aims to improve adaptability to climate change and food security in Laos.11

Land and forestry law

The Land Law currently under revision will not include communal land titling with recognition of communal land ownership, only user rights. From a tenure perspective the law is weak, but not unexpected in the Lao context where the concept of “community” is only recognised and officially used to refer to the national community, making any reference or recognition of collective rights of Indigenous communities obsolete. Meanwhile, the newly approved Forest Law remains vague when it comes to the recognition of customary rights and tenure. In the upcoming Forest Strategy 2030, the Department of Forestry (DoF) sets a goal to restore 500,000 hectares of “degraded forest” inside the Production Forests Areas (PFAs) by allowing private companies to plant industrial tree species such as eucalyptus. As the strategy categorises the swidden (shifting) cultivation fields under fallow as degraded forest, it has potential to affect the food security of Indigenous communities. Indigenous communities also face restrictions in accessing lands in National Protected Areas (NPAs) where no individual land titling is allowed.


In July 2019, the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC), with the Lao Biodiversity Association (LBA) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), organised a training in Vientiane on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Civil society organisations forming the Lao CSO FLEGT committee12 took part in the training that helped identify initial design steps in implementing processes that respect local communities’ rights through FPIC, as well as develop action points for interventions that can promote good governance through applying FPIC in their own work contexts.

WWF, via its CARBI II13 project also used the FPIC process to ensure community engagement based on the model developed under the SUFORD Project14 and piloted in over 600 villages throughout Laos. Despite all these efforts, the Lao government has not yet made any move toward the true recognition of FPIC.

Decree on ethnic affairs

Until today Laos doesn’t have a clear regulatory framework or law regarding Indigenous Peoples. To fill the gap, the Decree on Ethnic Affairs was drafted by the Department of Ethnic Affairs (DoEA) under the Ministry of Home Affairs and is currently being revised by the government. The decree, based on a similar document promulgated by the Committee for Ethnic Minorities Affairs (CEMA) in Vietnam, aims to provide a legal basis to deal with Indigenous Peoples issues. It “prescribes the principles, regulations and measures for management, monitoring and assessment of ethnic affairs in order to support the effective implementation, to make ethnic groups have unity, equality, respect, and help each other; to ensure the participation from all ethnic groups to contribute to the national protection and development, protect their legitimate rights and benefit according to the constitution and laws of Lao PDR”.15 Unfortunately, some provisions of the decree, if adopted in their current form, may worsen the already difficult economic and social situation of Indigenous communities. For example, Article 10.2 advises to “resettle ethnic groups that live in the hardship and undeveloped areas, risky livelihoods areas, development project-affected areas, and special areas to areas that can be developed and create appropriate permanent jobs and employment”.16 This provision not only allows authorities to forcefully evict Indigenous communities from their lands, but also is in direct conflict with Article 40 of the 2015 Constitution which guarantees Lao citizens the freedom of settlement and movement. Article 10.7 of the decree directly condemns shifting cultivators and aims at replacing the “old production process” with a new one, which uses science and technology to increase productivity and moves from subsistence and forest-based livelihoods toward agricultural expansion and market-oriented production. This, in turn, conflicts with Article 39 of the 2015 Constitution according to which “Lao citizens have the right to work and engage in occupations which are not contrary to the laws”.

Law on Resettlement and Vocation

In 2019 the government started working on the implementation of the Law on Resettlement and Vocation promulgated in 2018. The law provides a relatively clear structure and set of steps to be taken in relation to resettlement and vocational training of the resettled population. It aims at providing guidance and consistency around the country and, as the law envisions some form of supervision of the activities, it should increase transparency around the resettlement. The provisions on violations show an improvement over previous laws, with a range of sensible responses to violations listed, such as counseling, fines and civil options, rather than just a statement to the effect that violations will be punished.

The major concern for Indigenous Peoples of Laos is that this law gives a seal of approval to the powers of the government to resettle or expropriate Indigenous Peoples’ land. Moreover, it goes as far as to suggest that the government knows better what people need and gives it authority to move populations to where the government thinks they will have better job prospects or where their labour is required.17


Notes and references

  1. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Human Development Reports 2019 Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Accessed 27 February 2020: http://undp.org/en/countries/profiles/LAO
  2. World Bank. World Development Indicators database, country profile: Lao People’s Democratic Accessed 27 February 2020: https:// databank.worldbank.org/views/reports/reportwidget.aspx?Report_Name=CountryProfile&Id=b450fd57&tbar=y&dd=y&inf=n&zm=n&country=LAO
  3. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High “Statement by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his visit to Lao PDR, 18-28 March 2019”. Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews. aspx?NewsID=24417&LangID=E
  4. Janssen, Peter “UN finally tells the truth about Laos: UN Special Rapporteur on poverty and human rights plans to refer the reclusive authoritarian nation to the UN Human Rights Council for a host of abuses and failings”. Asia Times, 1 April 2019: https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/04/article/un-finally-tells-the-truth- about-laos/
  5. Skylar Lindsay, Lao government contests findings of UN poverty report, July 4, 2019. https://www.aseantoday.com/2019/07/lao-government-contests- findings-of-un-poverty-report/
  6. Lindsay, Skylar “Lao government contests findings of UN poverty report”. ASEAN Today, July 4, 2019: https://www.aseantoday.com/2019/07/lao- government-contests-findings-of-un-poverty-report/
  7. “Flooding in Laos’ Southern Provinces Displaces 100,000, Kills at Least 28”. Radio Free Asia, 19 September 2019: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/laos/ laos-flood-death-toll-28-09192019165401.html
  8. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR 2019). “Disaster Risk Reduction in Lao PDR: Status Report Bangkok, Thailand, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction”. Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www.preventionweb.net/ files/68252_682303laopdrdrmstatusreport.pdf
  9. Report from World Bank, UN Country Team in Laos “Government Presents Way Forward for Lao PDR’s Recovery”. 8 Apr 2019: http://www.la.one.un.org/media- center/news-and-features/28-flood-updates/473-government-presents-way- forward-for-lao-pdr-s-recovery
  10. Shrestha, Priyanka “Green Climate Fund provides $10m to reduce risk of flooding in Laos”. Energy Live News, 13 November 2019: https://www.energylivenews.com/2019/11/13/green-climate-fund-provides-10m-to-reduce- risk-of-flooding-in-laos/
  11. “Laos, FAO review climate change adaptability project.” Xinhua, 5 December 2019: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-12/05/c_138607467.htm
  12. The Lao CSO FLEGT Committee is a democratically elected group of five CSOs with a network membership of 25 supporting CSOs. The EU supports the Lao People’s Democratic Republic Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Negotiation Meeting, provides a synopsis of Lao Civil Society Organisations’ (CSO) involvement in national forest governance via the EU’s FLEGT Action Plan and accompanying Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA).
  13. CARBI phase 2 (Biodiversity Conservation In The Central Annamites Through Ecosystem Protection) is a transboundary project between Laos and Vietnam aimed at protection, restoration, and sustainable use of ecosystems and the conservation of biological diversity in the Annamites a mountain range between Laos and Vietnam.
  14. Sustainable Forest Management for Rural Development (SUFORD) project, implemented by the Department of Forestry and supported by the World Bank, Forest Investment Program and Government of Finland works on promotion of participatory sustainable forest management in national Production Forest Areas (PFAs), related rural development activities, piloting forest landscape management and village forestry, as well as relevant work on policy and legislation, forest protection and governance.
  15. Decree on Ethic Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs,
  16. Ibid
  17. Law on Resettlement and Vocation, National Assembly, No. 45/NA, Vientiane Capital, dated: 15 June 2018. Unofficial


Due to the sensitivity of some of the issues covered in this article, the author prefers to remain anonymous.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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