A landlocked country of 7 million between the Mekong River and Annamite Cordillera, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR or Laos) has the lowest population density in Southeast Asia. Officially, over 81% of land is classified as forest, and only 6.5% is arable land. Actual natural forest cover, however, is estimated by the government at 40%, with a target to increase to 70% by 2020. Some of the remaining area, considered as “damaged forest”, is sloping land used for cultivation.
Most members of the 49 recognized ethnic minority groups in Laos have traditionally subsisted from shifting (swidden) agriculture and forest products. Patterns of land use have been transformed through population displacements during and after the Indochina wars; government policies to eradicate opium and swidden cultivation; and relocation of hundreds of thousands of residents to new villages closer to roads and public services.
The government of the Lao PDR prioritizes economic growth and poverty alleviation through “sustainable development of the nation’s rich natural capital and land,” particularly through encouraging private investment and granting concessions of state land to investors. Forest, land, water, and mineral resources together make up more than half of the country’s wealth. The national strategy to “turn land into capital” has brought mining, hydropower, and agri-business land concessions to large areas of rural Laos, frequently turning small-scale farmers into landless laborers in the process. This represents an unprecedented transfer of land access from farmers to foreign investors.
Land policy and administration
Laos’ political system is structurally similar to Vietnam’s, with the leading role of the Lao Peoples’ Revolutionary Party guaranteed in the Constitution. Land is constitutionally considered a “national heritage”, and the State protects property and inheritance rights of organizations and individuals. The 2003 Land Law specifies that the State is charged with “centralized and uniform management [of land]” and its allocation, lease, or concession, including to foreign interests.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE), established in 2011, is the main government authority with responsibility for land administration. The Natural Resources and Environmental Information Centre (NREIC), under MONRE, gathers data on land use including leases and concessions. MONRE’s roles are shared with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which manages agricultural and forest land, and the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) in the case of hydropower and mining projects. The military has traditionally played a role in forestry and resource development. The National Assembly has recently assumed greater importance in monitoring land policy and channeling citizen feedback.
In addition to the Constitution and Land Law, other legal documents governing land administration include the Forestry Law (2007), Law on Investment Promotion (2009), Decree 192/PM on Compensation and Resettlement (2005), Decree 88/PM on Implementation of the Land Law, (2008), and Decree 135/PM on State Land Lease or Concession (2009). Policies on investment and concessions assign a leading role to the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) for processing applications for commercial land concessions. A new National Land Use Policy has been under discussion since 2013 but not yet adopted.
Lao law is written broadly, with no limits to state authority to allocate land to meet its objectives. However, once land titles (bai taa din) are granted to individuals or organizations, they are permanent (freehold). Titles formally mark the boundaries of land, and the holders of land use rights may protect, use, lease and transfer these rights, as well as bequeath or otherwise pass these under inheritance law. Forest and agricultural land are initially allocated on a three-year basis by district or municipal authorities; if this initial period passes without incident, the land user can apply to the provincial authorities to issue title for “long term use rights”.
The 2011-15 national socio-economic development plan set a target of issuing one million land titles (out of 2.6 million total estimated land plots); by mid-2015, 800,000 titles had been issued. The average time required to process and register a title is three months. The standard fee is 160,000 kip (about US $20), but MONRE officials admit that bribery and corruption are sometimes encountered in the titling process, as well as cases in which provincial and district authorities give overlapping titles for the same land.
Customary tenure is not recognized in the Land Law, but is included in the Forest Law as one category of forest utilization. Communal land titling has only been piloted in two locations, with temporary status, and is not linked to indigenous status as in Cambodia. In practice, however, communal land use is practiced by many ethnic groups in Laos; one study found that in every community visited, “land held in common by a community or user group plays a crucial role”.
International donors have supported several phases of land titling, with funding from the Australian, German, and Swiss governments, as well as the World Bank. Donors have conducted an extensive set of policy studies and an inventory of land concessions. International support has also contributed to clearing unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the US-led “secret war,” which affects 25% of villages in Laos and constrains land use.
Land transfer and public land lease
The 2003 Land Law requires state approval to change land use from one category to another (eg, from agricultural or forest land to industrial use). The state may requisition land for public purposes with “appropriate compensation”. These provisions have been broadly interpreted to allow land acquisition for private economic purposes. Large areas of agricultural land have been lost as businesses acquire land from farmers via purchases and concessions, with implications for national food security.
As much as five million hectares, or 21% of Laotian territory, has been leased or conceded to domestic or foreign investors – an area five times larger than total rice paddy land. An estimated 13% of villages have at least one concession (sampathan thii din) within their boundaries. The largest share of conceded areas is related to mining (85%), consisting largely of exploration areas. The national inventory of concessions and leases completed in 2011 lists 2,640 cases, a fifty-fold increase since 2000. Leases are small (average size 3 hectares) and are mostly to domestic users, while concessions average 823 ha and are mostly for large-scale natural resource development projects over a 25-50 year period. 135 concessions are over 1,000 ha, and nine exceed 10,000 ha; these large and very large concessions comprise the majority of land under investment. These figures do not include contract farming, which is estimated to cover an even larger area than leases and concessions.
State land can be granted at multiple levels of government and by different ministries, including MONRE, MAF, MPI, MEM, and the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. Concessions of over 10,000 ha require approval by the National Assembly. Larger maximum sizes apply for concessions on “degraded” or “barren” forestland. Most land concessions up to 150 ha can be approved at provincial level.
Concessions are described in government documents as being on “state land”, that is not previously allocated to individuals or villages, yet there are many examples of concessions given that overlap with villagers’ land. Cases have also been documented of concessions that were approved by levels of government without a legal mandate.
Investors from three countries neighboring Laos – China, Thailand, and Vietnam – hold an estimated 53% of all land under investment. As of 2012, Vietnamese investors reportedly controlled the largest area of land (over 307,000 ha), followed by Chinese and Thais. In terms of the number of projects and capital invested, China is the largest investor, with about 40% of the total. The Lao PDR government has made several announcements of moratoria on new concessions, with limited impact on the pace of granting land to investors. In mid-October 2015, the creation of new banana plantations was banned by authorities in three northern provinces due to concern over chemical use by Chinese-owned farms.
Land dispute resolution
The Land Law and related decrees assign responsibility for resolving administrative and civil land conflicts to government land authorities. If relevant authorities are unable to solve the problem, it may be appealed to the next higher level or, as a last resort, to the justice system. In an apparent contradiction, conflicts related to land concessions may only be handled by the state agencies that are parties to the concession contract.
No data is available on the total number of land disputes. Documented cases include rubber concessions in southern Laos; contract farming in the north; coffee in Champassak and others on the website of the Land Issues Working Group (LIWG). In peri-urban areas around Vientiane, conflicts have arisen over compensation and resettlement from construction of the 450 Year Road and draining of the That Luang Marsh.
Laos’s approximately 105 registered non-profit associations (NPAs) have not been heavily involved in land policy advocacy. Efforts by some international and domestic NGOs to raise land issues at the ninth Asia-Europe Forum in 2012 is thought by some to be associated with the unresolved disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone. The LIWG, based in Vientiane since 2007, works collaboratively as co-chair of the Land Sub-Sector Working Group under MONRE. LIWG includes more than 45 member organizations and 80 individual supporters.
Map of land concessions & leases (Schönweger et al 2012, p. 24)
 IndexMundi, Population density. http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/EN.POP.DNST/rankings.
 World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Rural environment and land use”. http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.1.
 Vientiane Times, “Forest cover goal possible if managed properly”, 22 July 2014, https://wle-mekong.cgiar.org/forest-cover-goal-possible-if-managed-properly/; Vongdeuane Vongsiharath, “Forest cover and land-use changes in Lao PDR according to the National Forest Reconnaissance Survey” (no date), http://www.fao.org/3/a-l1067e/l1067e01.pdf
 Hirsch P and Scurrah N, “The Political Economy of Land Governance in Lao PDR” (Vientiane: Mekong Region Land Governance Project, 2015), p. 2.
 Evrard O and Goudineau Y, “Planned Resettlement, Unexpected Migrations and Cultural Trauma in Laos,” Development and Change 35:5 (2004): 937-962.
 Baird I and Shoemaker B, “Unsettling Experiences: Internal Resettlement and International Aid Agencies in Laos,” Development and Change 38:5 (2007): 865-888.
 Akhom Tounalom (Vice Minister of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment), Preface to Schönweger O, Heinimann A, Epprecht M, Lu J, and Thalongsengchanh P, Concessions and Leases in the Lao PDR: Taking Stock of Land Investments (Bern and Vientiane: Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, and Geographica Bernensia, 2012), p. 6.
 World Bank, Lao PDR Development Report 2010 – Technical Note: The socio-geography of mining and hydro in Lao PDR: Analysis Combining GIS Information with Socioeconomic Data (Washington: The World Bank, 2011), p.1.
 Hirsch and Scurrah, “Political Economy”, p. 15.
 Heinimann A, Schönweger O, Epprecht M, Nanhthavong V, and Hett C. “On the Right Path?
Land Concessions in Laos”, CDE Policy Brief, No. 3 (Bern, Switzerland: Center for Development and Environment, 2014).
 Constitution of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (2015), Article 3.
 Ibid., Article 17.
 Land Law (No. 04/NA, 2003), Article 3.
 Ibid., Articles 16, 20.
 Hirsch and Scurrah, “Political Economy”, p. 5.
 Wells-Dang A, Nyi Soe K, Inthakoun L, Tola P, Socheat P, Nguyen TTV, Chabada A, and Youttananukorn W, “A Political Economy of Environmental Impact Assessment in the Mekong Region,” Water Alternatives 9:1 (2016): 39, 43.
 Law on Investment Promotion (No. 02/NA, 2009), Articles 21-23.
 Vientiane Times, “Draft land policy has ‘no problems,’ lawmaker says”, 25 April 2015. http://www.laolandissues.org/2015/04/25/draft-land-policy-has-no-problems-lawmaker-says/.
 Land Law, Articles 43-49.
 Ibid., Article 53.
 Ibid., Articles 18, 22.
 Vaenkeo S, “Ministry reaffirms plan to issue 400,000 land titles by 2020”, Vientiane Times, 15 October 2015, http://www.vientianetimes.org.la/FreeContent/FreeConten_Ministry_reaffirms.htm; Vientiane Times, “Govt set to issue 60,000 land titles next fiscal year”, 17 September 2015, http://www.laolandissues.org/2015/09/17/govt-set-to-issue-60000-land-titles-next-fiscal-year/.
 Sengdara S, “Complaints of excessive fees in land title issuance”, Vientiane Times, 23 October 2015. http://www.vientianetimes.org.la/FreeContent/FreeConten_Complaints.htm.
 Vaenkeo S, “Coordinated action needed to address overlapping land titles,” Vientiane Times, 21 October 2015. http://www.vientianetimes.org.la/FreeContent/FreeConten_Coordinated%20action.htm.
 Forestry Law (No. 6/2007), Articles 39, 42.
 Hirsch and Scurrah, “Political Economy”, p. 11.
 Seidel K, Phanvilay K, Vorachit B, Mua S, Boupphachan S, and Oberndorf R, Study on Communal Land Registration in Lao PDR, Land Policy Study No. 6 (Vientiane: GTZ, 2007), vii. http://www.mekonginfo.org/assets/midocs/0002525-environment-study-on-communal-land-registration-in-lao-pdrland-policy-study-no-6-under-lltp-ii.pdf.
 See a literature review in Dwyer M, “Turning Land into Capital: A review of recent research on land concessions for investment in Lao PDR” (Vientiane: Land Issues Working Group, 2007). The inventory was conducted by the Center for Development and Environment (CDE) and is housed in part at the Lao DECIDE web portal (www.decide.la).
 UXO Lao, “UXO Impact”, http://www.uxolao.org/index.php/en/the-uxo-problem/uxo-impact.
 Land Law, Articles 7, 14.
 Ibid., Articles 63, 68 and 71; Decree 192/PM on the Compensation and Resettlement of the Development Project, issued 7 July 2005, http://prflaos.org/policy/pm-decree-1922005-compensation-and-resettlement-development-project.
 Phouthonesy E, “Time to review land policy: NA members”, 2010. http://www.laoembassy.com/21.6.10%20Time%20to%20review%20land%20policy.pdf.
 Wellmann D, “The Legal Framework of State Land Leases and Concessions in the Lao PDR”, discussion paper, Integrated Rural Development in Poverty Regions of Laos (IRDP) under the Northern Upland Development Programme (NUDP), 2012, p. 3.
 Schönweger O, Heinimann A, Epprecht M, Lu J, and Thalongsengchanh P, Concessions and Leases in the Lao PDR: Taking Stock of Land Investments (Bern and Vientiane: Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, and Geographica Bernensia, 2012), pp. 20-21, 27.
 Ibid., p. 29.
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Land Law, Article 65.
 Wellmann, “Legal Framework”, p. 18.
 Dwyer, “Turning Land into Capital”, p. 7.
 Wellmann, “Legal Framework”, p. 4.
 Schönweger et al, Concessions and Leases, pp. 9, 24-25.
 Dubus A, “The true cost of Laos’ banana plantations”, Southeast Asia Globe (February 2016). http://sea-globe.com/laos-banana-plantations/.
 Heinimann et al, “On the Right Path?”; Schönweger et al, Concessions and Leases, p. 27.
 Dubus, “The true cost of Laos’ banana plantations”.
 Land Law, Articles 80-81.
 Land Law, Article 80; Decree 88/PM on Implementation of the Land Law.
 Decree 135/PM on State Land Lease or Concession; Wellmann, “Legal Framework”, p. 11.
 Kenney-Lazar M, “Plantation rubber, land grabbing and social-property transformation in southern Laos”, Journal of Peasant Studies 39:3-4 (2012), 1017-1037.
 McAllister, K, “Rubber, rights and resistance: the evolution of local struggles against a Chinese rubber concession in Northern Laos”, Journal of Peasant Studies 42:3-4 (2015), 817-837.
 Land Issues Working Group, “Cases from the field”. http://www.laolandissues.org/case-studies/.
 Khonesavanh Latsaphao. Vientiane Times, “Land owners notified of compensation for highway project,” 23 December 2015, http://vientianetimes.org.la/FreeContent/FreeConten_Land%20owners.htm; Hirsch and Scurrah, “Political Economy”, p. 4.
 Kepa, “Reflections on Lao Civil Society”, 2015. https://www.kepa.fi/tiedostot/reflection_paper_laos_2015_0.pdf.
 Hale E and Solum A, “Laos NGO restrictions threaten development, say non-profit groups”, South China Morning Post, 17 September 2014. http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1594490/laos-ngo-restrictions-threaten-development-say-non-profit-groups.
 Land Issues Working Group, “Who We Are”, http://www.laolandissues.org/about-us-2/who-we-are-2/.