Xe Pian–Xe Namnoy Affected People Want Consultation Before Construction
Last week, I was invited to stay with ethnic Nya Heun families in a consolidated resettlement zone in the Paksong District of southern Laos. Thousands of people were forcefully moved here between 1996 and 2001 from their ancestral lands along the Xe Pian and Xe Namnoy rivers to make way for two dams that were being planned at the time, the Houay Ho and Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower projects. The rivers and streams near their old homes provided bountiful fish catches and free flowing fresh water; the forests provided wild foods and the space for a form of upland garden cultivation where a diverse mix of vegetables, fruits, coffee and rice could be grown.
Meanwhile, in the resettlement zone where I stayed, the land has been cleared of forest and the shallow soil is not suitable for traditional upland patterns of agriculture. There is no comparable river for catching fish or fetching clean water supplies. Instead, all people rely on buying rice, meat and fish from a market about 5-8 km away. A single functioning gravity-fed pump provides water to meet all daily needs. Most residents earn an income as daily labourers on surrounding coffee plantations owned by Lao and foreign corporations, and by harvesting coffee from the small plots of land they have been granted around their homes to sell to the same coffee companies.
People say they cannot ever recall experiencing the pains of hunger that they feel here. Although school attendance for children and medicine for the sick was not free in their original villages, the fees were possible for all families to pay because few other cash expenses had to be made. Now, families say they have trouble affording to send their children to school or to buy medicine when people are ill because all earnings must be saved to purchase food.
Seeking Ways to Cope and Live From the Land
As people have struggled to cope under these dire conditions, they have been surprised by the fact that most of their old lands were never flooded. Over ten years ago, they recall being warned that water from the rivers would soon inundate their homes because of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Dam.
In fact, the Xe Pian- Xe Namnoy Dam was never built because the Korean developer’s original plans ran aground with the events of the Asian financial crisis. Villagers attest to being frustrated, confused and uncertain about why they were forced to leave their homelands. Now, a majority of families have reclaimed their old land. They have begun to harvest crops and gather forest foods as they did previously, which was not possible until recently because officials from the government had tried to bar access to the land. However, a few years ago, families who wanted to go back were asked to identify the land they farmed and to pay substantial sums of money. Now, the roads on the way back to their old villages continue to be monitored by the government, but as long as families have paid the fees required of them to return to their old land, access is granted.
Villagers Take A Determined and Proud Stand Against Forced Removal
Although most families moved together to the resettlement zone, two villages stayed behind, Ban Houay Chot and Ban Nong Pha Nouan. Despite experiencing intimidation from authorities, all village families took a collective decision with the headmen to reject the resettlement packages. Despite being stripped of access to official support for any infrastructural services, they vowed not to leave their mountainous forest land. During my visit, they proudly declared that the sustainable harvests of wild foods - including delicacies like wild honey – and of small-scale farming provide a sense of healthy self-reliance that could never be found on the parched lands of the resettlement site.
Conscious of what has happened to resettled communities in the area, villagers of Houay Chot explained to me that they had decided to initiate a photo documentation project of all the wild species of animals and plant life in the mountains and rivers around them. They quickly explained the example of relying on over 20 different species of fish found in the streams and rivers nearby, and the variety of dishes that can be prepared from this important source of food. Now, they want to be able to record everything so that they can monitor what happens if plantation companies or dam builders begin claiming their land.
Commonly Threatened Futures
All of the headmen and villagers I met reported that over the past six weeks, they have been visited by people from the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Power Company and project consultants from Thailand, Europe and North America. Photographs of people’s homes, land and of their families have been taken. Questions have been asked about the foods and incomes they rely on. Construction camps with signage by the Korean company, SK Construction and Engineering, have recently begun to be erected.
It now appears that after years of delays, the Xe Pian - Xe Namnoy Hydropower Project is set to be constructed, this time with a possible loan from the Asian Development Bank. With the Concession Agreement signed in October 2012, shareholders include Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Company, two Korean firms, SK Engineering & Construction Company and Korea Western Power Company, and the government of Lao PDR. At least ninety per cent of the electricity generated is expected to be exported to Thailand.
This trans-basin project will consist of six dams on the Xe Pian, Xe Namnoy and Houay Makchan rivers, with water diverted through a tunnel and channel into the Sekong River. This project is expected to lead to the flooding of the watershed areas that the thousands of Nya Heun residents in the resettlement zone still rely upon. It will also have serious impacts on fisheries in the region. It is not clear whether transboundary impacts have been assessed, despite the fact that thousands of ethnic minority people in Cambodia live downstream, along the Sekong River.
Indeed, no one from the communities I visited near Paksong or Attapeu, has heard yet what the impacts of the project will be on the land, rivers and fish around them. Having already experienced displacement once, they are frustrated and want to know what the Thai and Korean companies have in mind for ensuring their livelihoods are not negatively impacted. As one headman explained to me, “The companies building the Xe Namnoy Dam should first come to talk to people in our village. They should not start building the dam without talking to villagers first. We, the village people, need to know exactly what will happen and when…Now we are worried. Already the construction site of SK has been set up. But they have not come to our village to explain everything yet. We do not know what will happen and what support we will get. We are still waiting to know.”
If international institutions with environmental and social safeguards in place, like the Asian Development Bank, are going to consider investing in this project, they will need to take heed of villagers’ serious concerns over the apparent gaps in project consultation and transparency. It remains to be seen whether they will take this responsibility seriously.