MoNRE Study Reveals Low Environmental Awareness in Laos

Not many people in Laos know about complex topics such as climate change or biodiversity. Even decision makers in government institutions and opinion leaders in the mass media or in academia often lack the necessary expertise. What researchers found alarming is that almost half of the people interviewed agreed to exploit the environment or lose a species for satisfying human needs as they do not believe that the environment is in danger. These statements are among the findings of the first ever comprehensive environmental awareness survey in Laos conducted by MoNRE in cooperation with GIZ in 2012 as part of Lao-German development cooperation.

The survey among 1,196 villagers and 138 urban decision makers in Vientiane Capital, Khammouane, Huaphanh and Sayaboury Provinces was implemented in late 2012 by trained staff of the Ministry of Environment (MoNRE) and the National University of Laos. The survey team conducted 220 focus group discussions in 55 villages in addition to individual interviews based on a comprehensive questionnaire. Both the discussions and the interviews focused on environmental knowledge, attitudes and practices – what the respondents know, feel and do in relation with climate change adaption, biodiversity and environmental protection. At the same time, trusted and often used media were identified which could be used for an environmental education and communication strategy (EECS) in the future. The EECS is the heart of the matter of the Promotion of Climate-related Environmental Education (ProCEEd) project which will engage in a mass media campaign and non-formal environmental education activities in 2013-2014.


In addition to the basic results from the questionnaires, indexes and correlations were used at an aggregated level of data analysis. An index or correlation is a score from a combination of answers across several questions. Overall, results from the Knowledge-Attitude-Practice (KAP) Survey show low average scores regarding the whole range of questions, and corresponding low indexes and correlations. There are mostly only minor differences between groups differentiated by gender, age, location, educational and financial status or institutional affiliation. This is an indicator that not just certain but all respondents know little and often have non-consistent attitudes and opinions about climate change, biodiversity and environmental issues. Given the socio-economic and educational situation in the country and the complex, often natural science subject matters in question, this is not surprising – but many of the detailed results are as outlined below.


What people know
Specific knowledge about climate change is low or inconsistent, even among urban decision makers and opinion leaders who are supposed to take a lead in commu¬nicating the complex topic. For example, even though Vientiane's highly educated and wealthy respondents generally are more aware about climate change than the total sample, 70% of them wrongly believe that the amount of rainfall in Laos will increase from year to year, and 66% state that climate in Laos will not change because Laos is a land-locked country. But 87% of respondents from government organizations including MoNRE at least put their words into action which supports the hypothesis that high environmental knowledge will lead to positive environmental attitudes and high motivation, and, in combination, will result in environmentally friendly practices.


Villagers often attribute climate and environ¬mental changes to their agricultural calendar and the natural resources their livelihood depends on. They notice the loss of animal and plant species. For them, a clear distinction between 'climate change' and 'the environment' does not exist but they are aware that negative changes are contributed to by humans. People interviewed expressed a high expectation that the Lao government should protect forests, enforce environmental laws, protect animals and plants and adapt land use planning accordingly. But they state that they need more information on these issues, and on climate change in general. Topics mentioned most often are natural disasters and natural resources management including forest protection, adaptation to climate change and other environmental changes, food from subsistence activities, and public health care.


What people feel
Respondents reveal a careless attitude towards nature which is reflected in statements such as exploiting/destroy¬ing the environment is justified if it brings an economic benefit (48%), or it is all right to lose a species in order to satisfy your human needs (45%). Alarmingly, almost half the people believe that the environment is not in danger at all. Contradictory statements that it is important to preserve the environment for future generations (99%) look like lip-service only: When it comes to taking action respondents do not know what to do (83%), have no time (79%) or no money (60%). Rural respondents have a higher tendency (49%) to state that there is nothing they can do to change environmental conditions while urban ones (78%) strongly agree that science and technology will make up for environmental harm. Villagers often refer to major environmental polluters such as industrial timber plantation concessionaires or mines. Highly educated respondents from urban areas, first of all Vientiane, have the most positive environmental attitudes. Among institutional representatives, civil society organisations do best, followed by academia and MoNRE.


What respondents associate with the environment are mostly natural disasters (86%), followed by protecting nature (74%) and the future-oriented quality of the natural environment (49%). Individuals and the government are almost equally (23%) rendered responsible for improving the environment. Some of the highest livelihood risks as perceived by respondents are related to climate change itself (63%), natural disasters (86%) or deforestation (76%). Health risks (80%), livestock disease (83%) and access to drinking water (63%) come next, even before loss of land (53%). Man-made risks such as the use of pesticides (44%) or growing waste volumes (39%) range lower. Gender and age have hardly any effect on perceived environmental risks. People from Vientiane and the best educated respondents as well as civil society organizations and academia express the least risky attitudes and practices.


Measures to solve environmental problems are predominantly seen in stricter enforcement of environmental laws (81%), and awareness raising at school (53%) or awareness raising through mass media (32%). People are willing to stop slash and burn practices as well as burning waste at home, and even to hunt less. The commitment is much less when it comes to a halt in buying wild animal meat or to using less pesticide. Respondents put protecting the environment (60%) as the second most important topic on their individual national policy agenda after education (87%), and followed by healthcare (59%) and reducing corruption (24%).


What people do

In general, urban respondents express less negative environmental practices than rural ones. The more educated and wealthy respondents are, the less they engage in practices that are potentially harmful to the environment. On the one hand, this confirms studies indicating that practices with potential negative environmental impacts are often consequences of structural poverty and the lack of access to information and education. On the other hand, most practices-related questions in the interviews related to rural respondents while practices which have potential negative environmental impacts such as hunting or tree harvesting are rarely relevant to urban people.


A two-thirds majority of male and female household members is involved in rice-related and garden activities and other subsistence activities. Subsistence activities which are potentially harmful to the environment such as hunting or firewood collection reportedly play a minor role regarding time spent on activities benefitting the family. It should be kept in mind though that all the respondents’ statements during individual interviews express self-assessments which do not necessarily reflect reality. In terms of sustenance and food consumption practices, meat from wild animals, the market or livestock is a rare treat. Still, 60% of respondents have wild animal meat at least once a month or occasionally. Fish, predominantly supplied from rivers and lakes, is one of the major staples dished at least once a week. This confirms the importance of these food items which, at the same time, are diminishing rapidly.


The forest products used in household are dominated by firewood (93%), food (90%) and fish (84%) – but significantly less among respondents in Vientiane – followed by traditional medicine, timber for local use and traditional housing material. The land use planning and farming adjustments reported by farmers look reasonable from an agricultural and climate change adaptation perspective. Among the reasons for difficulties in changing farming practices, respondents often stated that they have not enough information.


What media people prefer and trust
In general, communication patterns are shaped by interpersonal conversations even before TV or radio. But trust in environmental information is most often associated with TV, radio and village authorities while conversations and the Internet become less relevant. The higher the financial and educational status of respondents is, the more they trust and prefer TV, Internet, newspapers and books. Radio, community meeting and village authorities are easy-access media that the poor and the less educated tend to trust more. TV's popularity is mostly associated with Thai TV channels, not LNTV. However, the weekly "Open Heart – Open Airwave" TV program produced by students with the provincial LNTV stations in Huaphanh and Luang Prabang are promising examples of participatory video broadcast on a regular basis. Radio is the only mass media that is used in combination with local discussion groups, e.g. farmers listening to agricultural extension programs. Radio also attracts all audiences, from poor farmers to urban academics. The weekly 30-minute environmental radio drama series of Radio Luang Prabang, which is planned by Radio Huaphanh as well, constitutes an example for attractive environmental radio. Newspapers are highly relevant to reach decision makers and opinion leaders at all levels. Especially in rural areas, interpersonal and community-based communication channels such as village authorities, community meetings, and mass organizations such as the Lao Women's or Lao Youth Union are highly trusted. Focus group discussions revealed a high potential for infotainment because both information and entertainment are hard to come by in the countryside.


The Environmental Education and Communication Strategy (EECS)
The KAP Survey provides basic data on what respondents know, feel and do in relation with climate change adaption, biodiversity and environmental protection, and on the sources of environmental information they prefer and trust. In addition, social profiles of major segments of the respondents will be useful when addressing specific target audiences through the future EECS. For example, people who are better educated and absorb more information from the mass media may become 'agents of change' who act as opinion leaders at the local level. They may convince the majority of a specific target audience to try new practices that protect their environment or adapt them to climate change.


The KAP Survey was one step of the ProCEEd project's overall EECS. The next steps will be to plan and produce regular environmental TV and radio programs and newspaper columns at the national level. At the district level, non-formal environmental education activities facilitated by an environmental education bus, village learning groups, local theatre etc. will complement the media mix. More information on the mass media and non-formal environmental education activities are available from MoNRE and at the project's website under



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