The Lao government expects this week to determine final compensation amounts for residents who will lose land and crops to make way for the U.S. $6 billion Lao-Chinese high-speed railway, an official working on the mega-project said on Monday.
Rattanamany Khounnivong, Laos’ deputy minister at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and one of the heads of the construction unit for the single-track, standard-gauge rail network, told RFA’s Lao Service that the government expects the project’s steering committee to approve the final compensation scheme, though assessments of the social and environmental impact of the railway are taking time.
There are 242 different categories of compensation to be considered, such as that for jackfruit and mango trees five years of age or older, hardwood and teak trees less than a year old, and land near main roads, he said.
“The number of fruit trees and so on must be included to evaluate the compensation for those affected,” he told RFA’s Lao Service. “In doing so, we must collect proper data to ensure accuracy.”
Though construction work has begun on state land, workers have not yet bulldozed other places, because the people who live there must be compensated before clearing activities can begin, he said.
“We have not touched their land, but we have informed them of the project and listened to their needs,” he said.
Under Lao Decree 84 issued in April 2016, those who lose land to development projects must be compensated for lost income, property, crops, and plants. Project owners are required to guarantee that living conditions for those displaced will be as good as, or better than, they were before the project was started.
Rattanamany also said officials are evaluating the amount of money to be paid for land according to market prices to ensure people receive fair compensation. This is being done with the participation and the consent of the people.
“This is not considered a delay [because] we are implementing it in accordance with the process,” he said. “We would like to rush to do it, but everything must follow the process and be based on the satisfaction of the people.”
He went on to say that officials have not evaluated all the costs and cannot finalize the total number of affected families and timing because companies working on the project have not yet completed the railway’s demarcations.
Construction in the north
Workers have started blasting tunnels in mountains, building bridges and roads, and clearing land for stations and substations along the planned rail line in the three northern provinces of Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, and Luang Prabang since construction on the railway got underway late last December.
They are now boring more than 90 holes for 48 tunnels and have set up more than 100 camps along the railway line to accommodate themselves, according to Lao media.
Three tunnels in Luang Namtha province have been bored, including the one closest to China—the Laos-China friendship tunnel which crosses the border between Boten in Laos and Mohan in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, according to a report in the Vientiane Times on May 17.
Crews have been intensively drilling through mountain tunnels and making land adjustments for the railway in Luang Prabang province.
Construction is also now under way in Phonesai village, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Luang Prabang, the country’s ancient former capital.
Workers have started boring tunnels on a nearby hill there, and building work has commenced on a bridge spanning the Mekong River, according to Peter Janssen, a contributing writer to Japan’s Nikkei newspaper, in a report on June 24.
Still waiting for news
Villagers whose houses, land, and farmland are affected by the project are still waiting for news about how much compensation they will receive, where they will be relocated, and the dates of their relocations, they said.
Some say that work on the railway has already cut through their land, though they have received no compensation.
In May, an official in Luang Namtha province told RFA that about 20 families from Nateuy village in Luang Namtha district have had to leave their houses and farmland to make way for the project, but they still do not know where they are going to live.
“We do not know where those villagers who have been affected will be relocated,” he said. “The [Lao People’s Revolutionary] Party and government are still working on the plan. There will be about 20 families relocated, but we will try to find some land for them not far from their current village.”
Nine families in Luang Prabang province’s Phonexay village have already moved to another village, but they still haven’t received any money to cover their lost homes and land, sources said.
An official from Oudomxay province told RFA in May that the railway project’s Chinese contractor, state-owned China Railway Corporation, had brought workers to the province’s Xai district to begin drilling tunnels and making adjustments to farmland on which 200 villagers currently live.
The Chinese engineering team is building roads and tunnels that cut through the villagers’ farmland, he said.
“However, there has been no talk of compensation or the relocation plans for the affected villagers because it is a matter for the Lao government,” he said.
“We are not against the project, but we need the Party and government to fairly compensate those who are affected according to the market price for the land, which is in a business zone,” the official from Oudomxay province said.
“We also want to know when, how, and how much we will be compensated,” he said. “Some villagers are really in trouble. They need some money to build their new houses. They request that all the villagers who are affected be compensated. However, we have gotten no answer from the relevant bodies.”
Landlocked Laos expects the railway’s 420-kilometer (261-mile) route through the country to lower the cost of exports and consumer goods while boosting socioeconomic development in the impoverished nation of nearly 7 million people. It is part of a longer railway that will extend southward through the Malay peninsula to Singapore.
Political and financial setbacks have delayed the Lao-China stretch of the railway. The original construction plan called for work to begin in 2011 and be completed in 2015, but the plans now call for the railway to be completed in 2021.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written by Roseanne Gerin.