Chemical waste from Chinese-owned banana farms is polluting a river in Bokeo province in northern Laos, leaving local villagers who bathe in the stream with severe rashes and other skin disorders, Lao sources say.
Only those living downstream from the farms have been affected, pointing to the farms as the likely source of the pollution, a resident of Bokeo’s Nam Fa village told RFA’s Lao Service this week.
“Children who go to bathe in the river later have rashes all over their bodies, and when these rashes begin to itch, they scratch them, which causes swelling and large red spots to appear,” RFA’s source said.
“Only those of us living downstream [from the farms] have this problem. Those who live upstream have not been affected,” he said, adding that villagers suspect that chemical waste from the farms runs off into the river when it rains.
“Sometimes, workers may even pour chemicals directly into the river. We just don’t know,” he said.
Residents of nearby villages voiced concern for their neighbors at Nam Fa, with one calling on the Lao government to better monitor the Chinese farms’ use of polluting chemicals.
“We don’t want them to [pollute] anymore. If this is allowed to continue, even more people will be affected, and some may never be cured,” the resident of Nam Ma village in Bokeo’s Huai Xai district said.
The villagers at Nam Fa may not realize the dangers of bathing in polluted water, though, and should take better precautions, a resident of Meung district’s Hua Nam Tha village said.
“To protect themselves, they must take better care, and the authorities should help them with this problem,” the villager said. “The banana farms are not always to blame: there are both bad things and good things about them.”
Treated only for symptoms, not for cause
Nam Fa villagers come in to their local clinic for treatment more frequently in the country’s dry season, when water levels in the river fall, a district health department official said, adding that nurses will treat them only for their obvious symptoms.
“If their condition is not severe, we will give them medicine to relieve their itching, but if their condition is worse, we will give them stronger medicine to take at home,” he said.
“We don’t try to analyze the cause of their condition,” he said. “We treat them only for the symptoms they display.”
An official from Bokeo’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry told RFA that he had recently visited Nam Fa and spoken to the villagers there, but had heard no complaints from them about their rashes or itching.
“We will tell local officials to collect the information we would need to solve any problems they may have,” he said.
Concerns over chemical run-off from heavily polluting Chinese-owned banana plantations led in January 2017 to government orders forbidding new banana concessions, though many farms were left to operate under contracts valid for several more years.
Illnesses and deaths have long been reported among Lao workers exposed to chemicals on foreign-owned farms, with many suffering open sores, headaches, and dizzy spells, sources told RFA in earlier reports.
Chemical run-off from farms has also polluted many of the country’s water sources, killing fish and other animals and leaving water from local rivers and streams unfit to drink, sources say.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Richard Finney.