Rights to Land, Information, Networking and Knowledge in Laos (also known as 'Rights-LINK')

Rights to Land, Information, Networking and Knowledge in Laos (also known as 'Rights-LINK')

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$250,000 - $500,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

To improve and nurture a diverse range of stakeholders (including government, civil society, private sector, donors and of course local communities - with special attention on women and ethnic groups) capacity, knowledge, and participation in decision-making on land-related issues so that rural communities can exercise their rights to manage the land they use in a sustainable and equitable manner.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Issue 1: Increasing land use conflicts as a result of population pressure, government policy on relocation and increasing investments for agriculture development has had a negative impact on food security and poverty, unequal distribution of land and environmental degradation. Issue 2: Local government officials and village leaders lack capacity, resources, tools and methods to properly support and implement land management-related activities at the local level. Issue 3: Farmers and local government officials lack awareness and access to information on land and legal rights and responsibilities and often do not understand their rights and responsibilities. Issue 4: Processes to improve governance of land and natural resources at the local level that allow for greater participation are not well documented or tested. Issue 5: Coordination and harmonization among donors, government agencies and INGOs remains inadequate, which leads to overlapping agendas and initiatives and inefficient use of human and financial resources. Issue 6: There are few feedback mechanisms and two-way communication channels between local level implementation and policy and planning levels.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

In Laos, this initiative is absolute unique. Only in the last couple of years has the government been willing to engage with non-governmental actors on any issue related to law, much less an issue so fundamental to the sovereignty of the nation (with emphasis on the long struggle for independence resulting in the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975). In our work, we first invest in local people who live directly off the land as the prime movers of a topic extremely sensitive to government leaders. Second, we deal with government officials head-on: we draw a range of government agencies at all levels into engagement with NGOs and other stakeholders, which is both unfamiliar but enlightening/empowering for them. Third, we engage with officials and local leaders in a way that addresses both the need to recognize government authority but that also appeals to their common sense; both see the need to frame all land development with relation to the principal need for food security and see the dramatic changing landscape around them, both in terms of loss of biodiversity and prime agricultural land AND dramatic pressures from outside investors, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and others. The main development hypothesis of the Rights-LINK project is that in order to improve governance of land and natural resources mechanisms need to be in place for individuals, communities and civil society to meaningfully contribute to policy reform and dialogue regarding land and natural resources. This includes: Component One - providing information and knowledge to key stakeholders on land rights and responsibilities (e.g. our Legal Guidebook attached), Component Two -providing better legal support and feedback channels to seek redress, and Component Three - developing coordination mechanisms between and among different actors at all levels, including efforts to build capacities of key government agencies, the national university, the Lao Bar Association, and others.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Rights-LINK focuses on a range of stakeholders on local and national levels. For example, VFI's 'Village Rights to Manage and Use Land and Forests" guidebook (http://rightslinklao.org/eng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=135&Itemid=131) was disseminated to every district in Laos, and to dozens of NGOs and other actors. Impact is nation-wide: more that 6 million people. Realistically, these and other materials are having direct impact on key governmental actors responsible for land use planning and management. More important than the documents reaching key stakeholders is role the project plays in opening channels of communication, linking key policy makers to local people. To illustrate this, VFI/the Rights-LINK project was the secretariat for the recent "Turning Land Into Capital" meeting, which was the National Land Management Authority's (NLMA) attempt to focus attention on the three primary ways to use the land to contribute to national development (1. Exploitation (mining, etc.), 2. Development (hydropower, plantations, etc.) and 3. No Exploitation (REDD, Ecotourism, Conservation, etc.)). The Minister of Foreign Affairs was the keynote speaker, which included National Assembly representative on food security; Minister of NLMA; Minister of Justice; Provincial governors; Provincial Heads of Land Management; UNDP Chief Economists; INGOs; Key donors (SDC, GTZ), etc. While the NLMA went into the meeting expecting a joint statement on specific ways to best gain investments from the land, key meeting finding focused on the fundamental need to address food security for local people, to carry out land titling (including communal title) and comprehensive participatory land use planning for villages, and to nurture feedback channels.
About You
Village Focus International
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name


Section 2: About Your Organization
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?

Organization Name

Village Focus International

Organization Phone


Organization Address

PO Box 4697, Vientiane, Laos

Organization Country
How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Your idea
Country your work focuses on

, SL

Do you have a patent for this idea?



Action Area 1:
Promote knowledge, access to information, consultation, and collaboration of key stakeholders on land and NRM-related issues (farmers, communities, local officials, policy-makers and civil society professionals) to improve governance of NRM at all levels.

Action Area 2:
Assist local people and communities so they are better equipped to deal with rapid market and socio-economic changes taking place and become active participants in land and NRM

Action Area 3:
Support local and national government agencies and facilitators (local NGOs, NGOs) so they are better able to deal with rapid land use and NRM changes in Laos

Channels to seek legal redress are just emerging in Laos, so the risks include:
-Disagreement of government agencies on how LINK Resource Centre will be managed
-Lack of willingness of local government agencies to fully participate in the effort
-The power and influence of concessions/investments a hindrance to implementation


1: Platforms to improve coordination/communication for all actors established to link local land issues to decision-making levels

-Resource access on land/NRM provided to centres in Laos and the world
-Best practices on land/NRM collected, documented, disseminated
-Networks, platforms and feedback mechanisms for improved coordination established, tested

2: People have improved livelihood opportunity, information access, and can seek legal advice on land rights/responsibilities

-Para-legal approaches developed on legal rights re: land/NRM
-Education materials developed at village level explaining rights for information & redress
-New approaches to land/NRM to ensure equitable use and transparent decision-making

3: Gov/civil society/private sector are willing/able to address land & NRM issues equitably & transparently

-Land information made accessible to/used by university teachers & students.
-Local officials/village authorities have capacity to address land issues and solve different types of land conflict
-Gov, INGO staff and private sector are able to address land issues in own work

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?


If so, how?

Ultimately, the sustainable use of natural resources depends on a conducive and applied policy and legal framework. In Laos these exist on paper but are implemented in different ways at the discretion of local authorities. Thus, the project will support activities both at the level of policy and implementation.

Mechanisms employed to strengthen linkages to policy and practice include:
-Working with/through policy research institutes at NAFRI and the NLMA to provide information directly to policy makers
-Developing fora and platforms at the district and provincial level to share experiences in implementing different polices
-Capitalizing field experience to disseminate this to policy makers through multiple channels
-Testing new policies and legal provisions at the local level
-Developing mechanisms to inform/answer questions from the National Assembly on local land use and management
-Strengthening mechanisms so local groups can voice their own concerns to policy makers and officials.

The project is working to link different land and NRM actors, with attention to legal rights. The project will link actors to different knowledge and processes so they can make their own decisions regarding land and NRM, and will work equally with government and non-governmental partners.

At national level, the LINK Centre is a neutral platform, where all actors can access/share information on land rights and responsibilities, to shape policy decisions. At provincial level, platforms/networks are established to improve linkages between different actors. At the local level, the project builds upon informal, customary institutions, test local strategies, and feed issues to policy makers.

What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Does your organization have a board of directors or an advisory board?


Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how partnerships could be critical to the success of your innovation.

Partners are fundamental to the project:

Nat'l Land Management Authority is the strategic partner and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) plays a lead role.
-NAFRI-NAFES: Development of materials/information on land use planning and rights, testing planning processes for agriculture and forestry, policy feedback
-Dept of Forestry: dissemination of village rights and responsibilities, development of materials on forest use and management.
-PAFO/DAFO: Land use planning, forest management and development
-Donor partners: It is expected that after the first phase of implementation more donor partners will support the project
-Development partners: this includes projects, civil society organizations and INGOs that are working in sectors related to land and natural resource management
-Government partners: including all key government agencies that the project will engage such as MPI, Ministry of Energy and Mines, etc.
-Private sector partners: agribusiness, mining, hydropower & emerging business associations like the Lao Chamber of Commerce

We would like to learn more about how your initiative is financially supported. Please explain your business plan/revenue model

The first phase of support for Rights-LINK comes from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and will focus on building a solid foundation for future activities. It is expected that after the first 3-year phase, financial support will be sought from other sources (donors, foundations and even private sector). It is expected that sustainability in this sense will mean 10-15 years. It is expected after this amount of time that mechanisms for participation in land management decisions will be developed and the major work of Rights-LINK could be finished. It is important to recognize that this Rights-LINK will need to evolve over time and not be fixed only on one topic or issue.

If implemented properly, key civil society partners, as well as key donors, will allow the project to scale up and increase the geographic focus and impact of the project, as well as chances for project sustainability.

Several other donors have expressed interest in the project and VFI continues to discuss possible support in the near future. These include:
-Oxfam NOVIB (Netherlands): A particular interest in national advocacy issues;
-MacArthur Foundation (U.S.): interested in conservation issues and conservation incentives related to livelihood development;
-Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation: Interested in legal advocacy, conflict management, and para-legal initiatives; and
-WWF Germany: a specific interest in XeSap National Protected Area in Salavan and Sekong provinces

Exit Strategy: The exit strategy for Rights-LINK will evolve over the first phase of the project but will include the following possibilities:
-The LINK Centre will, after the first phase (or when deemed appropriate) become a Non Profit Association (NPA), to be operated as an open, self-reliant, inclusive centre with the mandate to promote knowledge, access to information, consultation, and collaboration of key stakeholders on land and NRM
-Phase one and subsequent phases will emphasize capacity building of government partners and key civil society partners, so as to mainstream the central tenets of the project into normal engagement with local communities.
-Successes in Phase 1 of the project will attract the attention of other civil society actors as well donors and add value to the project and assist in scaling up initiatives throughout the country.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

Please read Social Innovator section (below) first.

There are two defining moments in this story: one personal and one organizational. Using the term 'moment' is also misleading, since the moments were more akin to a process of learning/adapting to observed need and opportunity. VFI continue to adapt and improve through a never-ending series of 'moments', because we want to better understand the priorities of local people and facilitate the communication/networking of diverse and vested groups.

With that as a backdrop, allow me to summarize the 'defining moments' of the Rights-LINK Lao project, including the creation of VFI and our evolution during these past 10 years.

The first years of VFI focused on service delivery for a dozen villages in southern Laos. We had a 'one village at a time' approach to development, where village issues were considered and addressed on their own merits. We had no interest in scale but rather issues specific to each individual village.

In 2003 our Lao field staff began to focus on comprehensive land use planning and legal advocacy for villages, since they observed ever-increasing natural resource exploitation. Before land use planning and land titling became widely promoted in Laos, we developed a 'Village Rights’ guidebook, with focus on rural people. The use of the term 'Rights' as it applies to local people was (and is) a fairly radical notion in Laos, where forestland and natural resources are owned by the state.

VFI began to aggressively work with the government to promote the development of this manual and pushed itself into the national debate about benefits sharing for local people, in a way that emphasized the authority of local officials but encouraged open dialogue/networking with civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders. In 2007 we began dialogue with a number of NGO partners to establish the Land Issues Working Group, then became a founding member of the Legal Issues Working Group, both parts of the INGO Network.

In 2008 our work came to the attention of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), a donor committed to Natural Resource Management and Governance. Rights-LINK addresses both and, after a year of study/partnership building, VFI launched the Rights-LINK project.

Rights-LINK is explained in other sections, but the most important and innovative part is the nurturing and support of local people and groups – at all levels – to build networks and communication channels where none existed before.

Tell us about the social innovator—the person—behind this idea.

Personal -
I am a small town boy from northern Michigan, USA and grew up in a very close, conservative, religious family. I spent my youthful energy playing sports and dreaming of a future in the NBA. College fed my interest to explore the world and led, to make a rather long and circuitous journey short, to the Peace Corps in the Philippines. If there was ever a defining moment in my life, I suppose it was the moment I was assigned to live in Itbayat, Batanes Province, perhaps the most remote and fascinating island in that country of 7100 islands. I lived and worked on Itbayat for 5 years; the first 3 as a Volunteer and the remaining 2 for a local NGO.

Itbayat is a farm of 3000 people in the middle of the ocean. It is an uplifted atoll with 100-300 meter cliffs and no beaches. The people are hardworking and as resilient as one can imagine. They became my family, my mentors, my confidants during this time. The people of Itbayat exist on what they grow, even while living within the typhoon belt of the Philippines. Most products, tools, building materials, come from the island’s natural bounty, even when it isn't particularly bountiful.

I learned far more from these hardy and kind people than I ever gave in my role as a water systems volunteer. Almost every day I learned that some fundamental preconception I held as truth was wrong and my understanding of the people or the projects needed to be reevaluated. These 'moments' taught me to listen, and then to listen again. As empathetic as we are it is unlikely that we can imagine living where all food must come from a family’s effort in the fields. It was impossible to live with them and not be moved and inspired. So, after graduate school, I brought this attitude with me to Laos as the director of an international NGO.

In 2000 I co-founded VFI - the first international NGO created in Laos, with several Lao and one American colleague. VFI is my home. We continue to struggle with project cycles and budget shortfalls but we continue to evolve, to learn, to innovate, much like the vulnerable people we are committed to serve in the far corners of this country.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

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Approximately 50 words left (400 characters).

Which (if any) of the following strategies apply to your organization or company (check as many as apply)

Legal education and awareness, Other.

Please explain how your work furthers one or many of the above strategies (if you selected “other”, please explain your strategy)

Nurturing network building to facilitate joint action. Rights-LINK has taken a lead role in the INGO and local NGO networking groups, made links to the National Assembly, created a 'Southern Network', operate the LINK Resource Centre, all to link govt, INGOs, local NGOs, the private sector, donors and local communities and emerging local user groups (women's groups, producer groups, etc.).