Testing assumptions: the recent history of forest cover in Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area, Khammouan and Bolikhamxay Provinces
William G. Robichaud

Centre for Biodiversity Research
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC


Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area (NNT NPA), in the Annamite Mountains of central Laos, is the largest nature reserve in Laos or Vietnam. It has witnessed a flurry of management planning in recent years, largely as precondition for the World Bank's consideration of support for the nearby Nam Theun 2 dam. A pillar of NNT's management planning - and which permeates most protected area planning in Laos - has been that swidden agriculture is the principal threat to the area's forest cover, and thus interventions in indigenous agricultural systems the first priority of management. However, in NNT the magnitude of the swidden 'problem' is an untested assumption, since there has never been an analysis of trends in forest cover in the reserve. This study attempted to fill that gap using, as a first step, analyses of decades-long series of topographic maps and Landsat satellite imagery.

Results show that there was probably a significant decline in forest cover in NNT from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, but that in the last two decades forest cover has been stable, and perhaps increased slightly. But even in the earlier period of loss, the broad area over which local residents cleared fields has not grown - what loss occurred was largely a process of infilling and intensification within the boundaries of a forest/swidden mosaic, rather than expansion outward into untrammeled areas of the reserve. Reasons for this probably include cultural stability and conservatism, and argue for a more conservative management approach.