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The Importance of Forest Products to the Rural Household Economy of Bokeo Province, Lao PDR

Claudio Delang, Assistant Professor
Sunil KC, MPhil student
Supported by RGC, Hong Kong

Many developing countries in South East Asia and beyond have embarked in political and economic reforms with the concomitant objectives of economic growth and the protection of their natural forests. In many countries, the policies embarked upon focus around the promotion of cash crops (such as rubber and coffee), the elimination of traditional shifting cultivation practices, and the removal of people from natural forests, among others. However, the road to economic development is not easy, especially when rural people are poverty laden and natural resource dependent. Forest products play a vital role in the livelihood of households in the rural areas in the South East Asia. They not only provide sources of income, but also help local people to meet basic food requirements, and provide alternatives to modern health system. However, forest products have to be seen within the broader economic choices available to the people. Rural households simultaneously perform multiple land use practices to maximize income and minimize risk. For instance, households collect forest products, are involved in shifting cultivation and sedentary agriculture, grow crops for both subsistence and cash, work for cash (either locally or in distant villages), raise animals for consumption or sale, migrate to cities to work for cash, etc. Therefore, to understand the economic role of forest products in the livelihood of rural households, we also need to understand the link between forest products and land use system and other economic options. Only this can give governments a proper picture of the role of forest products, and help them plan for a smooth transition from a subsistence-oriented, nature-dependent economic system, to a cash-oriented, market-dependent one. The lack of an adequate knowledge on the interaction between forest products, people and land use might result on failure of many conservation and economic policies.

This study takes a holistic approach by scrutinizing and discerning the contribution that forest products make in the overall household economy. In particular, this research aims to answer a) whether different land use practices and economic options (work for cash, shifting cultivation, sedentary farming etc.) affect the role that forest products play in the subsistence livelihoods of rural households, b) whether the consumption and sale of forest products reduce economic inequality in the villages, c) how forest products help different households in villages to select livelihood strategies to strengthen their household economy and to reduce expose to risk.

The study is carried out in Bokeo Province in the Northern Lao PDR, in two different, but interrelated areas: eight upland villages, and six lowland villages. Though each village is a small unit, the research tries to understand the similarities among these two different areas, and capture the micro-economic dynamism of the role of forest products in the local economy. This research adopts mixed methodology approaches: econometric approaches aim to determine the importance of, and dependency upon, forest products by different economic groups in both lowland and upland, while ecological anthropology addresses the need to locate these micro-economic conditions into their socio-economic and cultural contexts.