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What shifting cultivation means for Lao PDR’s forest reference levels

Blog | Tue, 11 Dec, 2018 · 9 min read
Slash-and-burn cycles and paddies shape the country’s approach to FRL construction

Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic (PDR) is defined by a mountainous North and the Mekong River valley. With an estimated 3,000 varieties, rice is king in both areas. Lowland paddies are interspersed with trees, while the rainfed upland ecosystem has traditionally been under a slash-and-burn system.

Such is the context that has shaped Lao PDR’s approach to constructing its forest reference emission level and forest reference level (FREL/FRL), a benchmark of the amount of greenhouse gases its forests have released into —or removed from— the atmosphere in the recent past. The reference level is used to assess REDD+ performance, often in the context of results-based payments.

Lao PDR submitted its FREL/FRL for the reference period of 2005-2015 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in January 2018, and the first aspect that came to the attention of the technical assessment group was its definition of ‘forest’. “It is quite unique, indeed,” says Dr. Kinnalone Phommasack, Deputy Director of the REDD+ Division with the Lao PDR Department of Forestry.

National forest definitions generally establish a minimum tree crown density, height threshold and area. Lao PDR’s definition is unusual in two ways: measuring the diameter of trees instead of their height, and adopting a minimum crown density of 20 rather than 10 percent.

This approach deliberately aims to exclude land covered with small-diameter trees that would have otherwise been classified as forests due to their height. “The other reason for selecting this definition has to do with trees in rice-paddy flatlands,” notes the FREL/FRL submission document. Paddies often have a canopy cover of over 10 percent and could be mistaken as forests through remote sensing, hence the establishment of a 20 percent density threshold.


Shifting cultivation is prevalent in hilly areas, and leads to a continuous change in land cover through a slash-and-burn cycle. Upland crops give way to regenerating vegetation —i.e. forest fallow— and later on to mixed deciduous forest, which will eventually be slashed to give way to crops again.

For the purpose of developing the reference level, should upland crops and forest fallow be classified as forest lands? And how often should Lao PDR produce forest type maps to capture the continuous changes in land cover?

“Selecting an adequate land classification was a challenge, as was deciding what carbon pools and gases to include, and how to balance the accuracy of sampling with the cost and efforts required,” points out Dr. Phommasack. The country settled for ‘forest’ in the case of regenerating vegetation, and for ‘cropland’ whenever areas were used for cropping, even if temporarily, at the time of mapping.

Lao PDR aims to continue improving the accuracy of its reference level in future reference level submissions. Refining the classification is important to analyze land and forest cover change over time. This is why Lao PDR “may explore options such as technologies to analyze ‘big data’; multi-temporal satellite datasets; and Global Information System (GIS) data such as land concession data,” notes the FREL/FRL submission referenced by Dr. Phommasack. Advanced remote sensing techniques may also facilitate the measurement of emissions from forest degradation caused by selective logging —the cutting of a few trees, as opposed to clear-cutting.

“There is a need for enhanced human resources, financial and technical capacity, including the need for Information Technology engineers who can manage a large and diverse range of digital data,” says the specialist. Other areas for improvement concern gaps in country-specific data to estimate carbon stocks and to account for non-CO2 gases such as NH4 and N2O, which are currently excluded from the reference level.

Estimating emissions of non-CO2 gases from shifting cultivation, for instance, is difficult because there is no country-specific biomass combustion factor. Forest fires are another source, but the country has not yet established a system to accurately monitor them and to distinguish whether they are natural or caused by human activities such as slash-and-burn.


“Constructing the reference level has allowed us to better understand the historic emissions and removals from forests and the underlying causes,” says Dr. Phommasack.

The main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation were found to be agricultural expansion; shifting cultivation and forest fires, and infrastructure development, including mining, hydropower and urban growth. Conversion of forests to commercial tree plantations and degradation from unsustainable timber harvesting are other relevant causes of forest cover loss.

As her counterparts in other UN-REDD partner countries, Dr. Phommasack believes the construction of the reference level is a chance for countries to build their technical capacity. “We learn from the technical assessment group and from other countries, and we can now better grasp what the global REDD+ community is most interested in, or concerned about, when looking at our FREL/FRL,” she explains.

Lao PDR is using the reference level to inform the creation of its national REDD+ strategy, and is planning to conduct its first national measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) process in 2019.

Constructing a reference level takes a concerted effort in offices and on the field, and Dr. Phommasack can attest to it: “Lao PDR is a mountainous country, so issues such as biomass surveys are very hard work,” she says. “Sometimes, one selects plots through remote-sensing, but the locations turn out to be unreachable or safety becomes a concern.” The REDD+ path may be steep, but Lao PDR is determined to make its way up.