Laos: To Trade Or Not To Trade


Sarinda Singh

In October 2005 all ASEAN members, including Laos, endorsed the Regional Action Plan on Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora 2005-2010 to combat 'illegal and unsustainable trade in wild animals and plants'. Regional agreements, such as attempts to realise the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), create significant incentives for standardisation of trade regulations including those relating to wildlife. Yet increasing international pressure to regulate wildlife trade presents a challenge for the Lao state as it attempts to encourage the expansion of its burgeoning market economy.

Laos is characterised as a country of abundant natural resources. It is not surprising then that socio-economic development is seen as dependent on harnessing the potential of these resources through forestry, agriculture, hydropower, mining and tourism.

Development initiatives such as the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Program are aimed at increasing regional integration and expanding trade networks through road and other infrastructure development. Given that local trade in Laos is often based on primary products, it is likely that trade in forest and aquatic resources will be facilitated by improved trade networks.

Meanwhile conservation organisations assert that illegal wildlife trade is threatening biodiversity throughout Southeast Asia as well as destabilising rural livelihoods. A huge array of wild animals and plants are desired for foodstuffs, medicines, luxury items and pets. Increasing demand for wildlife is seen as being fuelled by economic growth in the region, with resource-rich Laos being a supplier to its wildlife-hungry neighbours.

In this context, promotion of appropriate regional trade is meant to exclude endangered species and regulate the trade in other wildlife to ensure its sustainability. The internationally proffered means to achieve this is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES.

Laos joined CITES in March 2004, the last country in ASEAN to do so and only four months before Laos assumed the role as chairman of ASEAN. The Lao government was commended at international conservation forums, including the most recent CITES meeting held in Bangkok in October 2004. This meeting was considered to be particularly significant as it was the first time parties to CITES had convened in Southeast Asia, an area regarded as a hub for wildlife trade. The recent ASEAN regional action plan was one of various initiatives that resulted from this CITES meeting.

While CITES is aimed at promoting sustainable use of wildlife rather than prohibiting all trade, as a complex regulatory system it does raise questions about the difficulty of implementation. This is especially so when Laos continues to experience ongoing demand for endangered wildlife from more powerful consumer countries that have long been signatories to CITES.

WATCHPOINT: The limited capacity to implement complex regulatory systems continues to be a major challenge for sustainable development in Laos.


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