Landscapes in the mountainous north of Lao People's Democratic Republic (hereafter Lao PDR or Laos) are undergoing rapid transformation as road access is being improved and the area is integrated into the regional economies of Southeast Asia, particularly China. Rural livelihoods in the upland areas, long based on subsistence agricultural production, are changing as more households engage in the market economy. This study assesses land use changes from 1993 to 2000, as well as agricultural production in 4 northern provinces of Laos: Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, Bokeo, and Luang Namtha. The spatial data available for this region are limited, but several trends are apparent from 1993: the area of traditional upland agriculture and swidden farming (ie shifting agriculture) has decreased, while permanent intensive agriculture has increased. There is some evidence that forest cover has increased since 1997, probably as a result of the succession of abandoned swidden areas to secondary forest, but the quality and extent of this forest cover remains unclear. Agricultural sector analysis in the 4 northern provinces supported the land use data, showing a rise in commercial agricultural production of cash crops (including sugar cane, paddy rice, and maize) at the expense of subsistence agricultural production. All these changes reflect the government's policy of reducing shifting cultivation practices in the upland areas and promoting cash crop production. The new exposure to external market forces has begun to bring about changes in Laotian rural communities, with the development of village collectives to manage resources and negotiate with outside traders. However, it is also envisaged that this commercialization will increase the demand for privatization of agricultural land; this will require a renegotiation of current government land allocation policies.
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