More than 20 Lao families from Hoi Khoom village in northwestern Laos’ Oudomxay province displaced by construction of a high-speed railway linking the country with China are the first to receive compensation for the loss of their farmland to the megaproject, a local government official said.
Those receiving payments can no longer plant rice because railway construction has encroached upon their land and left them without money to buy rice to eat, said the official from the province’s Xay district, who declined to be named.
“The money was allocated to more than 20 families on April 9 because they cannot farm anymore,” the official told RFA’s Lao Service. “Some families received more, while others received less depending on how much land they lost.”
Though the land the families had to give up has an estimated worth of 12 million kip (U.S.$1,430) per hectare, some received 5 million-6 million kip (U.S.$595-$715) per hectare, while others got 700,000-800,000 (U.S.$83-$95), he said.
The families who have not yet received compensation are still able to plant rice, the district official said.
But many of them have already opened bank accounts so they can immediately receive money allocated to them once the decision is made, he added.
All parties involved in the payout have agreed to the transfer of compensation via bank accounts, the official said.
Thousands of Lao families are being forced to relocate to make way for the U.S. $6 billion Lao-Chinese railway whose construction began in December 2016 as part of a longer rail project that will link China to mainland Southeast Asia.
Plans now call for work on the railway to end in 2021, with Chinese companies promising completion by that date despite the challenges of boring tunnels in mountainous areas of the country’s north.
Under Lao Decree 84 issued in April 2016, Lao citizens losing land to development projects must be compensated for lost income, property, crops, and plants. Project owners must guarantee that living conditions for those displaced will be as good as, or better than, they were before the project began.
Rattanamany Khounnivong, deputy minister at the Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transport, told RFA in April that provincial People’s Councils in four provinces — Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane, also known as rural Vientiane — have agreed on payments of compensation for residents affected by the railway construction project.
But officials in Vientiane prefecture, which is separate from Vientiane province, have yet to reach an agreement on payouts, he said.
“Now we are in the middle of summarizing the process to issue a handbook about the compensation, and hopefully it will be done soon as it should be, because we want to compensate the affected people in a transparent way,” said Rattanamany, one of the heads of the construction unit for the single-track, standard-gauge rail network.
“As of for Vientiane the capital, we have not yet concluded compensation because many people were affected, so that requires a thorough revision.’
Because many families and their homes in Vientiane are being affected by railway construction, officials are finding it difficult to reach a conclusion on payouts, he said.
“And that’s normal because it is the capital,” Rattanamany said.
More than 4,400 families affected by the railway construction project may be eligible for compensation.
Once the compensation amounts and terms are determined, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and the Ministry of Finance will issue the payments.
In Luang Namtha province in northern Laos, families affected by the project are waiting to receive compensation from authorities to substitute for lost income.
One villager who had to move out of his original home more than a week ago now lives in a temporary dwelling that the company involved in the rail project has rented for him.
“We are having a hard time because we used to have a small store that sold things in our house, so we had a daily income,” said the man who declined to be named. “It’s true that the company pays for our rent, but we have no income to buy food to eat.”
His family of four used to make about 200,000 kip (U.S. $24) a day from items they sold, said the man, adding that he also had lost a small rubber plantation to the rail project.
Like other families who have been forced to give up their homes and land, the man said he has been waiting to be relocated and receive compensation since early 2017.
He still does not know how much he will receive or where he will be permanently relocated, he said, adding that he would like to be compensated for the full market value of his property so he has enough money to build a new house for his family and find a way to earn an income to feed them.
“The authorities expect to compensate all 150 affected families in the province no later than August 2018 because all data have been collected and calculated according to the agreement of every party concerned,” a Luang Namtha provincial official told RFA.
“The amount of compensation for land for housing or fruit tree plantations has been completely calculated,” said the official who declined to be named. “We are now waiting to distribute the compensation.”
About 150 families from the villages of Boh Tenh, Tinh Tok, Boh Piet, and Na Tei in Luang Namtha province will receive a total of roughly 245 billion kip (U.S. $29.2 million).
Landlocked Laos expects the planned railway to lower the cost of exports and consumer goods while boosting socioeconomic development in the impoverished nation of nearly 7 million people.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Manichanh Phimphachanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.