South East Asia Hub

Interview with Dr. Michael Epprecht, Senior Advisor, CDE

Dr. Michael Epprecht has lived and worked in Laos and Southeast Asia for the past twenty-five years. He is working with the Wyss Academy on the ramping-up of the Southeast Asia Hub, which is the youngest of the four hubs.

Portrait Epprecht

Dr. Michael Epprecht

Head of the Country Office in Laos of the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) of the University of Bern

The Southeast Asia Hub is the Wyss Academy’s youngest, and yet you’ve already gained a wealth of systemic knowledge there. How was that possible?

The Wyss Academy Hub in Southeast Asia is building on the achievements of many years of work of the CDE and its partners in Laos. This is a very important fundament for our scientific knowledge. CDE has worked with and through different sectors of the government of Laos, but also in close collaboration with international organizations and NGOs, supporting integrated development analysis and planning across the different sectors. The resulting integrated information and knowledge base, along with the solid institutional network serves as an important basis for the work together with the Wyss Academy. For example, a systematic analysis of this information towards quantifying a wide range of services provided to different users by different ecosystems, combined with a participatory assessment of demand for different ecosystem services from different stakeholders, reveals new insights into co-benefits and potential areas of trade-offs.

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Geographical data collected through "citizien science" approaches and local household surveys reveal different needs and perspectives. (© Phetsaphone Thanasack, 2020; Household survey team meeting)

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Paek District, Xieng Khuang Province. © Albrecht Ehrensperger, Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern

What does the interconnection with the research teams in Bern look like?

The Wyss Academy is still young, so its own research teams have been established only recently, while the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research (OCCR), the Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS) and the CDE provided scientific services as interim research teams at the University of Bern. Over the past two years, our team in Laos collaborated closely on the different scientific aspects with these teams in Bern, particularly on the modelling of climate change with OCCR, on the biodiversity research with IPS, and with the CDE in Bern on land sciences, land management and socioeconomic aspects. Now that the new research teams at the Wyss Academy are taking shape, the planning of the future scientific collaboration has been initiated. It will be crucial to bring these researchers to the ground – all of them, the professors, the post-docs and the PhDs – so they really get an understanding of the challenges and the opportunities in the different contexts in Laos.

How can the knowledge you are gaining serve as a basis for the Wyss Academy approach?

While the traditional multifunctionality of landscapes in Laos is very important, the homogenization of landscapes through single-purpose economic developments of vast areas of the country is very rapidly progressing. The natural multifunctional production basis of rural livelihoods is changing very fast, and a lot has already been lost. There are huge economic development investments from China and other players, which take over large parts of the country in terms of changes of land use and have huge effects on the environment and, of course, on the people themselves. Through the type of analysis that we do, we provide solid scientific evidence and information to show the importance of the multifunctionality of the landscape, the different services that the various landscapes provide to different users. The information reveals what can potentially be gained through specific land use or land cover changes, but also what will inevitably be lost due to planned economic developments. This information base can facilitate the engagement and discussion among different stakeholders towards securing more sustainable outcomes for people and nature.

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The economic pressure on land resources in Savannakhet is increasing also due to mega projects. (© Michael Epprecht, Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, 2020; Pulp processing factory, Savannakhet province)

An example of a local initiative in Laos has helped you to engage with the private sector. Can you tell us more about that?

The private sector is a very important player in the use of natural resources in Laos. One local initiative that we are supporting, the Pha Khao Lao engagement platform, started a few years ago. The online platform allows users to document and access information on the existence and use of the wide variety of natural products, non-timber forest products (NTFPs) that exist in Laos. NTFPs are of high relevance both for local livelihoods in rural Laos, as well as sought-after economic niche products on the local, regional and global markets. The platform serves as a link both downstream, i.e. to support the use of NTFPs in a sustainable manner through identifying ways of a sustainable harvesting and use of these products and the development of value chains, as well as upstream, towards ensuring that value chains are established fairly, and that more progressive companies can make sustainable use of these products while benefiting the local communities. The platform is designed in such a way that local actors can directly use it, while it also directly engages the private sector, locally and globally, in retrieving information and thus becoming supporters of this platform, which will help make it operational in the long run.

How will you proceed to develop sustainable value chains?

Alongside our local partners, we have been working with local communities for a long time, helping them find sustainable ways of farming and production. We are currently approaching the private sector – for instance, local restaurants, processors of local products and retailers, but also international players – to be more actively engaged in the sustainability of the whole value chains of NTFPs; to ensure the long-term benefits to all. For example: a resin from a local tree that grows naturally in secondary forests of Laos is the source of benzoin used, for instance, in the perfume industry. It has a very high value per hectare, more than maize, for instance. We help to find ways to manage these resources sustainably and to the benefit of local land users by connecting them to actors along the value chain: Farmers don’t have access to the perfume industry in Paris. We can be a broker and use our leverage and connections for them.

Challenge 1

Local resource stewardship initiatives for nature and people in forest frontiers

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Challenge 2

Maintaining multifunctional landscapes in Laos by materializing the multiple benefits for nature and people

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