Authorities in the northern Lao province of Bokeo suspended the operations of 18 Chinese-backed banana plantations after they discovered widespread violations of the regulations governing the use of agricultural chemicals, government officials told RFA's Lao Service.
“It has been a problem for the environment as the Chinese companies destroy the environment with their heavy use of chemicals,” a provincial official told RFA’s Lao Service.
The companies have also planted banana trees in areas where they aren’t permitted, the official said.
“The Chinese investors also plant outside of the areas where they have approval from the government,” the official explained. “Therefore, the planting is [now] banned.”
The ban went into effect at the beginning of 2017 and covers banana plantations mainly in Tonpheung and Huayxai districts.
With the backing of Chinese investors, banana plantations have cropped up all over Laos, but the environmental impacts have been felt mostly in northern provinces like Bokeo.
Instead of growing the native “kuay nam” banana, the Chinese plantations generally produce the world's top banana, the Cavendish.
While the Cavendish is the most popular banana, growing it in the northern provinces requires the use of a cornucopia of pesticides, herbicides, rodenticides, and fertilizers to boost production and ward off the 28 diseases and 19 insects that attack banana plants.
The use of the chemicals has helped the banana plantations thrive, but they have also leached into the ground water, and the thousands of plastic packages that the chemicals were packed in have been strewn across the countryside. In one case, the pollution was blamed for a death.
Banana plantation workers exposed to the chemicals have gotten sick as open sores formed on their arms and they began to get headaches and dizzy spells.
A government official in the Pha Oudom district, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA in 2016 that one worker had died from exposure to the chemicals.
The official told RFA that the banana plantation owner gave the victim 500,000 kip (U.S. $62.50) when he was treated in the hospital, but his family wasn’t paid when he died.
Conditions for banana workers are so bad that plantation owners allow them to work on a plantation for only three years because they fear they will die there, sources told RFA in 2016.
“The Chinese investors only think of their benefits. They invest lots of money, and they take advantage of the villagers,” the provincial official told RFA on Jan. 25. "The plantations in Tonpheung and Bokeo have now been banned, and they are slowly leaving. They don’t want to come any more.”
Over the next two years, Bokeo provincial officials hope to switch agricultural production from bananas to other crops such as watermelons and palms.
For the remaining banana trees, the government plans to wait until after the bananas are harvested, and then they will close the plantations, the official said.
Reported and Translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.