Lao PDR Takes Pioneering Steps for Stronger Protection of Heritage Sites
An inaugural, inter-ministerial consultation was held on 25 November 2022 in Vientiane to review a roadmap for strengthening heritage impact assessments (HIAs), building upon efforts already underway by national authorities. Mr Phakanxay Sikhanxay, Director General of the Lao PDR Heritage Department, and Ms Sara Sekkenes, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Lao PDR, co-chaired the consultation.
Ms Sekkenes congratulated Lao authorities for revising the Heritage Law in 2021 to include new HIA provisions, in line with guidelines issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Lao PDR is one of the pioneers in the Mekong sub-region for enacting an HIA requirement into law.
The HIA Roadmap suggests ways to improve assessment and mitigation of impacts on heritage sites by including strengthening heritage legislation, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mechanisms, investment review processes, and urban planning. The multi-pronged approach identifies the following specific needs:
· Formulate specific regulations for HIA as per revised Law on National Heritage (2021), Article 65
· Add clear requirements for assessing heritage impacts in EIA Decree
· Strengthen heritage impact screening in upstream investment licensing
· Strengthen integration of heritage protection and conservation in urban planning, public investment planning, and socioeconomic development planning
· Strengthen capacity at national and local level on HIAs
· Establish and maintain a database on world, national, and local heritage
The meeting gave positive endorsement to plans to further study the model of Health Impact Assessments, which are conducted under the umbrella of the existing EIA system and regulations. Health Impact Assessments are mandated under a decree issued by the Ministry of Health and are included in the EIA Decree. Health Impact Assessments must be endorsed by the Ministry of Health before the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE) will issue an Environmental Compliance Certificate for the ESIA reports. This model could be a practical approach to consider for assessing heritage impacts as well.
In the context of new development activities, the HIA Roadmap aims to strengthen the protection of heritage sites in Lao PDR, including World Heritage sites like the Historic Town of Luang Prabang. Improved capacity to carry out HIAs is critical in deciding the next steps for such projects.
The HIA Roadmap aims to support Lao PDR’s commitments under the 9th National Social Economic Development Plan (NSEDP), and international treaties like the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. In collaboration with the Heritage Department, the roadmap has been commissioned by UNESCO, with support from the ‘Poverty Environment Action for SDGs’ project conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Lao PDR has three World Heritage sites well-known around the world. Aside from Luang Prabang, these include Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape – which may potentially be affected by a new Mekong River dam project – as well as the Plain of Jars. In addition to these sites, Lao PDR has many additional heritage sites of both cultural and natural value across the country. The protection of these cultural and natural assets is in line with Lao PDR’s aspirations under the 9th NSEDP for ‘quality, inclusive and green growth’ to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030. Preserving these assets is critical and ensures that local communities benefit from improved connectivity, public services, and economic opportunities as part of a balanced approach to development and growth.
Facilitated by the Lao National Commission for UNESCO, the inter-ministerial consultation launched a larger process of convening inter-ministerial meetings, with the next consultation planned for January 2023. In addition, UNESCO, the Heritage Department, and The Asia Foundation will cooperate on capacity building for planning and undertaking impact assessments in heritage contexts. The training will refer to new guidance issued by UNESCO and the World Heritage Advisory Bodies, which is being translated into Laotian with the support of UNDP.
This initiative is in line with efforts by other development partners to support the Government of Lao PDR, including the USAID and Australia Mekong Safeguards Program’s support to MoNRE to strengthen the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment review process, implemented by The Asia Foundation. It also synergizes with UNDP’s collaboration with the Ministry of Planning and Investment in developing the Financing Strategy for the 9th NSEDP, which aims to steer investments in line with sustainable and ‘green growth’ principles.
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