Laos is a sparsely populated mountainous country in mainland Southeast Asia. It is one of the most biodiverse countries in Asia with 172 mammals, 212 birds, 8286 higher plant species and many other faunal and floral species (IUCN, 2006). Using the national forest definition of >20% tree canopy cover, 9.8 million hectares or 41% of Lao PDR was forested in 2002 (DOF, 2005), and 9.5 million hectares or 40% was forested in 2010 (DOF, 2011a). Using the FAO definition of >10% canopy cover, the forested area rises to 16.4 million hectares or 69% of the total area in 2002 (FAO, 2010). Major forest types in 2002 included upper mixed deciduous (56%), upper dry evergreen (14%), and dry dipterocarp (13%) forest. Plantations were a minor component of the landscape at that time but are on the rise, much of it funded by foreign investment. Forest cover declined rapidly at the rate of 134,000 hectares per annum (roughly 1.2-1.3% p.a.) from 1992 to 2002, and at roughly 35,000 hectares per annum since then. Forest quality also deteriorated with dense forest declining from 29% in 1992 to 8.2% in 2002 and open forest increasing from 16% to 24.5%. Main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation are forest conversion to tree and agricultural plantations, shifting cultivation, illegal logging, mining, infrastructure and hydropower development (DOF, 2010).
The economy registered an average annual GDP growth of more than 7% in recent years with 8.4% in 2010 (World Bank, 2011). The agriculture-forestry sector accounted for 30.4% of the GDP in 2010 and is the largest contributor to national GHG emissions (MPI, 2010). Laos has 49 ethnic groups and a large number of sub-groups whose livelihoods range from hunting and gathering to various forms of swidden farming in the uplands and wet-rice farming in the plains (King and van de Walle, 2010).