The preservation of the ecological basis of our life can only be achieved if as many people as possible participate in decision-making about ecosystem services. The Savannakhét province in Laos acts as an illustrative example in this respect. Savannakhét is the largest province in Laos and, after the capital Vientiane, has the second biggest population. The province is also one of the poorest in the country, with significant regional differences.
A study on ecosystem services commissioned by the Wyss Academy is the first representative survey on this subject in Laos. The ecosystem services in the country are very important in local terms for the food security of the population and protecting people from flooding, for example. Laos also has a high level of biodiversity and its forests play an important role in counteracting global warming. However, until now the value of these eco- system services has been underestimated and government policy has rather focused on rapid growth. Foreign investors have been given free rein, because in line with the traditional logic of economic growth, a tree is most valuable once it has been felled. For this reason, landscapes have been homogenized by the introduction of monocultures. As a result, the many and varied ecosystem services, which have a monetary value that is not obvious in the short term, are declining.
Closing the knowledge gaps
Clear facts are what is lacking. To what extent is small-scale farming better for maintaining diverse ecosystem services? And to what extent does that support the well-being of nature and people? The Wyss Academy is aiming to close a knowledge gap in this area. In 2020, it collaborated with the CDE Laos to map and model ecosystem services as well as to gain insights into the needs and demands for ecosystem services of local people. The data will be used as a basis to negotiate and develop incubators. In concrete terms, the hope is that Laos might leapfrog mistakes made by other countries with regard to monocultures and the homogenization of the landscape.
Laos has almost completely closed its borders since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the country had almost no cases of Covid-19 and no restrictions on movement.
In the case of the study on ecosystem services, this meant that a comprehensive household survey could be carried out in Savannakhet province. Households were asked, for example, what value they put on the natural world around them and how they interact with it.