Authorities in northern Laos have barred non-governmental organizations from meeting with villagers relocated to make way for a Thai-backed, lignite-fired power plant under construction in Xayaburi province, according to a representative from a foreign NGO.
More than 2,000 villagers from 450 families in Xayaburi’s Hongsa district had to make way for the U.S. $4 billion project, a joint venture between two Thai electricity companies and the Lao Holding State Enterprise, a wholly Lao government-owned company.
NGOs and rights groups say they want to provide information to the villagers and listen to any grievances they have about the Hongsa Lignite-Fired Power Plant, which will burn the coal-like fuel to produce electricity mostly for export to Thailand.
But local authorities have refused to cooperate with the NGOs trying to inform residents about their compensation rights and the full impact of the project on the environment and their livelihoods, the NGO representative told RFA’s Lao Service Monday.
The villagers have only been briefed by the government so far on the project, which is part of impoverished Laos’s plans to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by providing electricity to its neighbors.
“There are rarely NGOs working on the Hongsa lignite plant,” the NGO representative said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“But [when they try], it is difficult to access information or access the area because government agencies do not allow it,” he said.
The Hongsa Power Company, the joint venture firm, has built two villages for displaced residents at a cost of U.S. $20 million, and by April more than 2,000 villagers had moved there, according to state media.
The NGO representative said many international NGOs working in Laos want to meet with the relocated villagers, but most have been denied permission by local authorities.
In 2011, one Lao NGO was banned from entering the area despite having a letter of permission from the government in Vientiane to meet with local residents, he said.
The project, located 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the Thai border, will produce 1,878 megawatts of power. It is expected to be completed in 2015.
Nearby streams will be dammed to direct water to the Hongsa project, which includes a lignite mine that will provide the fuel to operate the plant.
Lignite is a fuel similar to coal or peat but considered inferior to those because it produces more pollutants.
Many of the relocated villagers are from minority indigenous communities whose livelihoods are tied to the natural resources of the land, including rice fields and forest products.
In the relocation villages of Homsavong and Homxay, the Hongsa Power Company has built 450 houses, a school, a road, and a market, and is working on constructing a hospital and irrigation systems, the state-owned Vientiane Times newspaper reported last month.
Relocated families have each received 5 acres (2 hectares) of farmland and training in farming methods, livestock-raising, and massage skills, it reported.
Construction on the power plant, which began in 2011, is 40 percent completed.
Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Public Company and Banpu Power Limited each have a 40 percent share in the power plant, while the Lao Holding State Enterprise has a 40 percent share.
Xayaburi province is also home to another of Laos’s large-scale electricity projects, the controversial Xayaburi dam under construction across the Mekong River to provide power to Thailand.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.