Lao Village Farmland, Paddies Destroyed by Work on Lao-China Railway Line

2021-01-29
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Lao Village Farmland, Paddies Destroyed by Work on Lao-China Railway Line The Lao-China high-speed railway line is shown running through farmland in Oudomxay province in Laos in a 2019 photo.
RFA

Dozens of families in a village in Oudomoxay province in northwestern Laos have been left without use of their farmland after a Chinese company pushed soil from a railway construction site onto farm plots, gardens, and irrigation systems, sources in the village say.

The company blamed for the damage, the China Railway Engineering Group, is subcontracted to clear land and build track along stretches of a high-speed rail line being built to connect China with Laos and other Southeast Asian countries as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s massive Belt and Road Initiative.

“The company bulldozed and pushed soil onto our farmlands and gardens, though,” one farmer from Koulong village in the province’s Namo district told RFA’s Lao Service this week.

“And though they came to collect information about the damage, they haven’t done anything yet to help us,” he said. “We farmers have now filed a complaint with the China Railway Engineering Group, requesting compensation and a solution to the problem.”

Efforts to contact the Chinese construction firm for comment were unsuccessful, but an official of Oudomxay’s Public Works and Transport Department confirmed that the section of railway being built passes through the affected farmland.

“The government will pay compensation for all damages,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Lao-China railway link, on which work began in December 2016, is being touted as a boon for the landlocked nation of nearly 7 million people because it is expected to lower the cost of exports and consumer goods while boosting socioeconomic development.

A total of 1,233 households in Oudomxay province have been affected so far by the Chinese-backed project, with 133 billion kip (U.S. $14 million) already paid out in compensation.

'A project we can't oppose'

In southern Laos, 18 families in Junla village in Sekong province have meanwhile received what they call inadequate compensation for at least 10 hectares of farmland lost to the Houay Lamphanh Lower Dam Project in the province’s Thateng district.

The amounts paid were between 5 million kip ($536) and 10 million kip ($1,072) per hectare of land, depending on far the land was from the area’s main road, one village landowner told RFA on Jan. 26.

“We didn’t receive the amount we expected,” the landowner said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“For land near the road, we had expected to receive an amount between 25 million kip ($2,680) and 30 million kip ($3,216) per hectare. And for land far away from the road, it should have been 15 million kip ($1,608),” he said.

Villagers had grown rice, coffee, cassava, and vegetables on the land that was taken from them, the landowner said, adding that without adequate compensation, they will be unable to pay land of the same size anywhere else.

“We’re not satisfied with the amount we were given [by provincial authorities],” another local villager said, adding, “But we’re not allowed to show our dissatisfaction. This is a government project that we can’t oppose.”

The compensation paid was fair, though, because the affected families had no permanent title to their land, an official from Sekong province’ Natural Resources and Environment Department told RFA, adding, “These 18 families have not been displaced.”

“They only lost the land for which they had no title, so we calculated their losses—including the loss of crops and fruit trees—based on [the government’s] Decree 84 concerning appropriate levels of land compensation,” he said.

These amounts were too low, compared to market prices, and this is why the landowners are not happy,” said a member of an NGO working with local residents on land issues. “Also, the landowners should have had an opportunity to negotiate the prices with the dam developer and the authorities.”

“The compensation shouldn’t be set by only one side,” he added.

Controversial dams

Construction of the 15-MW Houay Lamphanh Lower Dam, a joint venture between two Lao companies built by the China Gezhouba Group near Lavilamphanh village in Sekong’s Lanam district, was completed in December, with the power now being generated sold for domestic use.

Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries, with ultimate plans for scores more, hoping to export most of the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.

Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power-demand arrangements.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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