Not only does a fire create big losses in bio-diversity, but also contributes to air pollution within both Lao PDR and trans-boundaries in nature as well. As of 2 April 2021 in Luang Prabang Province, the level of PM 2.5 and AQI were recorded at 212 and 263 accordingly which is harmful to health as resulted from forest fire.
Extensive bushfires in Australia killed over 1 billion animals, burned 12 million hectares, and emitted 434 million tonnes of CO2 in 2020 due to climate change. At the same time, scientists said that forest fires in the Amazon are threatening the lungs of our planet- making it one of the biggest threats to the bio-diversity and ecosystems globally.
Laos is absolutely not one to exclude. Last year also, more than 20,000 hectares of forest was burned in the northern part of the country, including within National Protected Areas.
Combined with legal and illegal logging and other forms of deforestation, this has resulted in a shortfall of the country’s target to achieve a goal of 70% forest coverage of the total land area. The national government has acknowledged this issue with the release of an Order (No. 0073/MAF, dated 15 January 2020) from the Minister of Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, to prevent and control wildfire. The document requires local authorities to diligently follow-up and put it into practice.
Recognizing the consequences entailed, an important activity of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UNDP funded - SAFE Ecosystems Project, is to prevent and reduce the prevalence of forest fires. Such challenges are faced yearly and are prone to occur more frequently during the dry season. Thus, its conservation continues to be a priority.
Map of forest fires in Savannakhet Province
A major milestone of the Project was achieved in 2020 when a National wildlife Sanctuary called the “National Eld’s deer Sanctuary” was established. This Category 4 protected area is not only to conserve the endangered “Eld’s Deer”, but also to protect 130,745 hectares of globally significant Dry Dipterocarp Forest ecosystem. Thus, it was envisaged to support greater numbers of wildlife, healthy ecosystems and green forests.
However, much more efforts are needed toward the reduction and control of wildfires which can destroy a forest that has taken years to mature and protect in barely a few hours. The area is rich in bio-diversity with 278 bird species, 47 reptile species, 38 amphibian species, 126 trees and plants, of which four are considered have been identified as endangered species and one critical species. The forest has also been providing essential resources for communities through harvesting Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs).
The most common reason why villagers set fires is to encourage new growth of grass for cattle and buffalo grazing. This is a common practice within rural communities within Laos and many other countries. Setting fire in the forest is sometimes done for entertainment, especially amongst youth. Another common reason, is related to agricultural production and clearing of land. In addition, dispute over land area / boundaries between villages is also contributing to these fires.
It is important to note that there are some natural benefits of fire to the environment. In fact, it can be a part of the natural ecology of many types of forests. It may help remove tall, invasive vegetation, or creating space for new natural growth that is conducive for wildlife habitat.
However, fires set by people annually for land clearance, which ends up destroying the forest and habitats of wildlife is detrimental to life on our planet. Based on consultations with communities in and around the “Eld’s Deer Sanctuary” villagers wanted to understand more about the impact on forest fires in it was parallel with introducing regulations and enforcement. This can be done along with setting up signs in certain areas to remind villagers about fire prevention. Villagers are interested in understanding more about why forest fire is harming their natural environment and ultimately their livelihoods.
Introduction of alternative and more sustainable ways of raising their cattle, such as planting grass to feed their animal is an option that could be considered. As villagers still heavily rely on natural resources, their understanding and actions are important to protect the forests for the future.
Hence, supporting communities to have more sustainable and ecofriendly livelihoods would result in better bio-diversity conservation. To address this challenge, UNDP is pleased to continue our partnership with the government of Lao PDR and be part of the solution.
Mr. Thome Xaisongkham, Programme Analyst,
Natural Resources Management, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction Unit, UNDP Lao PDR.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.