Luang Prabang was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1995. At the time of inscription, as the State Party did not have the necessary management tools to ensure the preservation of the site, UNESCO appealed to the City of Chinon and the Central Region of France to assist the Lao authorities in the framework of decentralised cooperation. This cooperation led to the creation of a management authority (Heritage House), the elaboration of a regulatory framework (Safeguarding and Enhancement Plan, PSMV) and to a safeguarding programme for the World Heritage site. As from 1999, financial support from bilateral and multilateral cooperation, in particular through the French Development Agency (AFD) and the European Union, enabled the implementation of this large-scale programme: restoration of buildings (religious and civil architecture) and urban renovation (roads, drainage, networks). The programme focused on the transfer of skills, and today the Heritage House has a competent technical team in charge of the implementation of the PSMV.
In the framework of the safeguarding programme for the site, regular monitoring/evaluation missions are carried out through decentralised cooperation or by experts made available in the framework of the France-UNESCO Convention.
The evaluation mission carried out in October 2006 stressed certain positive aspects of the management of the property, notably the remarkable work of the advisory and supervising body, Heritage House. The recent creation of a public information service at the Ban Xieng Moane House, for example, is a key element conferring legitimacy to the activity of the Heritage House. All documents produced since ten years are available for public consultation, as well as the database freely accessible on four computers. In spite of increasing pressures, the responsiveness of the office in charge of building permits is remarkable in view of the conditions under which it works. Following a thorough analysis of the regulations of the safeguarding plan, and a site visit, case-by-case negotiation results in a more respectful architecture of the site and its architectural regulations.
Although very positive, this strategy of providing support to projects sometimes encounters the bad will of certain owners refusing to conform to established rules. The mission also noticed a trend towards the sharp increase in the number of plots (already excessive), including in non-constructible zones, which in the long-term could alter the special nature of the urban landscape of Luang Prabang and threaten its integrity.
In the context of a certain easing in the strict application of the rules, this attitude, in any event the best in view of the constraints is valid for most authorizations, but it is not without risk for big operations. This is especially the case in a context of weakening coordination and decision-making bodies (National Heritage Committee and Local Heritage Committee), which have not met for several months, and of the Heritage House, whose mandate should be better defined and its capacities strengthened.
The mission also underlined the urban and construction pressures affecting the World Heritage site. Large scale hotel projects are envisaged in the non-constructible zones, on the right bank of the Mekong. Uncontrolled urbanisation in the flood run-off zones increases the risk of flooding. Numerous urban infrastructure operations, financed through bilateral or multilateral international cooperation, are programmed within the inscribed perimeter and on its periphery. These include projects being developed by the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). In the absence of an established framework for coordination, these operations could threaten the outstanding universal value of the site.
The establishment of this framework for intervention requires an evaluation of urban and socio-economic developments since the inscription of the site and the definition of a new action plan. Indeed, the inscription of Luang Prabang on the World Heritage List has not led, as is usually the case, to the definition of a buffer zone. Aware of the lack of this buffer zone and its potential consequences for the protection of the property, the partners have undertaken a study for a plan for territorial coherence.
A diagnostic and planning document – the Territorial Coherence Plan (SCOT) – was therefore drawn up in 2004 by the AFD on the urban area scale of 375 km2. It enabled the identification of urban pressure, pinpoint the peripheral zones where increased development might alter the value of the property, and to establish scenarios for the development of the city. However, as the Urban Development Plan has not been revised, the SCOT is not yet an operational planning tool.
Moreover, for the long-term preservation of the outstanding universal value of the property, the SCOT studies reveal the necessity of maintaining the territorial balance at the regional level in order to control the migratory flux of the neighbouring rural populations to the city. Indeed, a massive rural exodus could not only throw off balance the traditional mode of territorial occupation (land-use) and the exploitation of the natural resources, but could also increase the pressures on the World Heritage site (overpopulation of the protected sector) and threaten the outstanding universal value of the property. Measures for the preservation of the natural environment and human habitations, and support for the development of the rural areas have thus been undertaken on the scale of the catchments area of the Nam Khan. These measures are concretised in a project for the creation of a biosphere reserve in the Nam Khan Valley, (tributary of the Mekong of which the mouth is located at Luang Prabang), in the framework of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme.
In order to sustain the preservation of the property, and ensure a balance in its development within the region, the expert mission recommended to:
a) pursue the strict application of the PSMV, especially by preserving the non-constructible status of the natural zones situated within the inscribed perimeter and by controlling the overpopulation of the site, as well as the survey of illicit constructions initiated by the provincial authorities;
b) pursue and finalise the planning procedure at the peri-urban level, to control the impact of urban development, infrastructure projects and natural risks to the World Heritage site. The creation of a buffer zone of the World Heritage property is recommended, in the framework of a revision of the Urban Development Plan, based on the perimeter and the recommendations of the Territorial Coherence Plan (SCOT), which should become operational ;
c) pursue the procedure for the creation of a biosphere reserve undertaken by the State Party, which could improve the balance between the World Heritage site and the region.
Concerning the need for strengthening the governance of the property, the expert mission also recommended:
a) the rapid conveening and the regular holding of meetings of the two coordinating and decision-making bodies (National Heritage Committee and Local Heritage Committee);
b) an evaluation of the quality of development and rehabilitation projects and the developments noted since the inscription of the property, especially in terms of overpopulation and use (impact of tourism development on the activities and uses): this evaluation could perhaps benefit from the support of UNESCO (in the framework of a joint World Heritage Centre/ICOMOS evaluation mission), and that of decentralised cooperation and the AFD;
c) the coordination of projects envisaged on the inscribed perimeter and its periphery, which should be coherent with the framework envisaged by the SCOT, eventually through the organisation of a coordination meeting of the funding agencies at the end of 2007.
In the light of these observations and recommendations that have been discussed with the State Party, the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS consider that it would be useful to undertake a reactive monitoring mission to the site. The objective of this mission would be to evaluate the nature and potential impact of the large-scale projects being planned around the listed property and the other above-mentioned issues linked to the safeguarding of the site. It would also aim to advise the State Party on the extent of the possible buffer zone to be established as well as the most appropriate regulations for its management and use.