Laos, one of the few remaining communist states, is a landlocked, mountainous country with a population of less than 7 million but of great ethnic diversity. Laos is slowly opening up to the world which may help improve its low human development records. A third of the population is considered poor and a quarter of children under five are underweight.
Widely covered by largely unspoilt tropical forest, no more than 10% of the land, mostly located in the narrow, fertile floodplain of the Mekong river, is suitable for agriculture, which nevertheless provides around 80% of employment.
Laos' main staple food is rice, grown in the Mekong floodplain but also on uphill slash-and-burn fields. Relative self-sufficiency was achieved only in recent years as rice production doubled over 1991-2011 (World Bank). Yet, frequent droughts, especially in the North and Central Laos, mean that a large share of rural families are regularly food insecure for several months before the harvest. Vegetables, fruit, spices and cotton are also grown. Agriculture in this mountainous country is limited by the shortage of arable land, about 10% of the total, a majority of which is planted to rice. With a dense river network and forest cover, fish and forest resources are very important in the Lao diet.
Laos' richness in water resources (including production of hydroelectricity for Thailand - see Nam Theun 2 dam in Central Laos), timber wood, biodiversity and mining resources could help boost its development, as shown from their annual growth rate being above 6% since 2004, even though inclusiveness and sustainability of its exploitation remain under scrutiny.