Villagers in the remote Lao hamlet of Huaiyae in the scenic Vang Vieng region north of the capital Vientiane are concerned about possibly losing their land to a Chinese development project, after local authorities were spotted in the town taking measurements and noting the locations of trees.
Vientiane provincial authorities have confirmed there is a Chinese firm looking to develop the Vang Vieng district area in which Huaiyae sits, but they say that land belonging to locals won’t be touched. Villagers are, however, skeptical.
“We saw [them] come into our village and take notes about trees,” said a Huaiyae resident in an interview with RFA’s Lao Service.
“We will not give up our land. Where [else] are we going to live?” the resident said, adding, “We will let them take as many notes as they want, but we will not give up our land!”
Vang Vieng has long been a draw for Western backpackers and other tourists drawn by its spectacular limestone scenery, rivers and rural charm. Lying on the route of a planned Lao-China railroad it is also potential magnet for Chinese visitors.
Last year, the Lao-Vang Vieng New Area Development Company, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Laos, for what's described as a sustainable tourism project. It will reportedly run in three phases over 15 years at a cost of U.S. $5.5 billion. That could create thousands of jobs but it is unclear how many of those jobs will go to Lao villagers.
Meanwhile, Vientiane province has granted another Chinese company permission to survey the area of a former airport in Vang Vieng for construction of an entertainment complex, including a shopping mall, hotels, and other structures on 15 hectares of land at a cost of U.S. $200 million, sources say.
In Huaiyae, the Chinese investment plans have generated more anxiety than hope.
The villager said that in addition to the notes about trees, the authorities measured the size of their houses.
“Nobody has agreed to sign any documents,” the villager said.
Another villager seemingly contradicted this claim, saying that some of the people in the village did sign documents.
“The family next to my house signed, but I did not,” the second villager said.
“I let [them] measure my house, but wouldn’t sign the document they presented to me,” said the villager.
“Most people don’t like [the idea of] the area being developed by this Chinese investor.”
A third villager explained that if they are ever forced to sell their land for the project, they won’t be properly compensated.
“Many people will be angry if the project actually starts, because compensation for their land will be based on estimates made by the state,” said the third villager.
“My plot of land has a current market value worth about $220,000, but the state will say it is worth much less than that.
AVientiane provincial official who requested not to be named confirmed to RFA that a Chinese-owned firm is interested in developing the area of the western bank of the Xong River in Vang Vieng as a new tourism project.
“They are still in an 18-month survey period, but it is still unclear what they really want to do,” the official said.
“They will make a tourism development that includes the participation of the local people,” said the official.
The area said to be under survey comprises 32 villages. Local residents say that district authorities have suspended the issuance of land titles to people who own land along the Kuang River since the end of 2017, as well as prohibiting development within the area without permission.
The citizens of at least 11 villages including Huaiyae have made a pact not to sign any documents from land authorities.
They have also asked the provincial and central governments to carefully review any impact the project might have on the local people and the environment in the long term.
The villagers say that tourism has already been harmful to the environment in their region and they fear that the natural resources upon which local livelihoods depend will be exploited to generate income for others in unsustainable ways.
As one of the least developed Southeast Asian nations, Laos has become a target for massive foreign investment, especially from companies from neighbors China, Thailand, and Vietnam, which receive attractive investment incentives from the Lao government.
Reported and translated by Phouyong for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.