Studying local laws in a wetland: How traditional knowledge and beliefs can help to protect nature

Local communities and ethnic groups in Lao PDR are strongly attached to local beliefs, taboos and spirit related traditions. In many ways, these beliefs are highly associated with respect of nature and worshiping land and its resources.

Villagers work with research to map out areas that are protected by local beleifs.

The Xe Champhone wetlands in Savanakhet province is home to more than 20,000 people including Lao loum, Phou tai, Makong and Katang. These wetlands are of high importance for local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation for threatened species such as the Siamese crocodile and many water birds. Xe Champhone is one of the country’s two Ramsar sites. Under its commitment to the UN Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the government of Lao PDR has designated two wetland sites as “wetlands of international importance” to be prioritized for conservation.

From October to December 2011, IUCN Lao PDR, together with its government partners from central, provincial and local levels, carried out surveys with villagers to learn more about traditional laws and regulations, local beliefs and taboos and how these regulations are linked to the protection and management of natural resources and biodiversity. This was the first step of a two years project, “Applying the rights based approach to conservation”, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and led by the IUCN Environmental Law Center (ELC) in Bonn, Germany.

Ten villages were surveyed through group discussions, household questionnaires and participatory mapping. The “monkey forest” in Muang village, the “turtle lake” in Don Deng village as well as many other forests and lakes that are home to many species and play an important role for the wetlands (protection against flood, water quality improvement, biodiversity conservation, livelihoods). The most common regulations are to forbid tree cutting, fishing and hunting as well as seasonal restriction on accessing the site.

From a few square meters around a massive tree to more than 30 hectares, these locally protected places create a “green mosaic” in the wetlands. These protected natural lands are important: the Xe Champhone wetlands have been intensively cultivated and deforested and, in some areas, spirit forests protected by villagers are the only remaining forest patches.

Villagers, from the elderly to the children, are all aware of these traditions and perpetuate the preservation and respect for these spiritual natural lands from one generation to the next. The key person in the village is often a “Kuan Cham Ban” (spiritual or animist leader), who is able to understand the spirit’s will and to talk with him or her. He acts as a mediator between the forest-lake spirit and the villagers, ensuring everybody in the village will respect the sacred place.

After studying the knowledge of local customary practices, IUCN Lao will provide advice to improve statutory laws and to include local knowledge, beliefs and taboos in a regulation document for the Ramsar site in Xe Champhone. This will also be an opportunity to study and to raise awareness of the importance of cultural diversity in relation to biodiversity and natural resource management in the area.

This project in Laos is part of an international project that also includes Equator and Honduras in Latin America, focusing on traditional protection of natural resources as a powerful tool for conservation and livelihoods worldwide.
To learn more about the Xe Champhone wetlands, you can download the baseline report here.
To learn more about the “Rights-based approach to conservation” visit the RBA portal here.

About the Ramsar Convention
The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 160 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1910 wetland sites, totaling almost 187 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Ramsar’s mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.

Lao PDR was the 160th country to join the Ramsar Convention, and the 8th in the ASEAN region.

For more information about the project, please contact Mr. Raphaël Glémet, IUCN Lao PDR:


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