Lao villagers resettled in mountaintop towns to make way for construction the China-backed Namtha 1 Dam in Luang Namtha province in northern Laos have been given houses and other facilities but now have no land to farm, leaving them unable to make a living in their new homes, Lao sources say.
More than 10,000 villagers displaced from 37 villages in Luang Namtha and Bokeo provinces have now been moved in a resettlement drive beginning in 2016 and ending last year, and are living in homes in 11 new villages on high ground.
All the moved villagers have now settled in but have been left with no land to work, a resident of Resettlement Village No. 1 told RFA’s Lao Service on Jan. 29.
“The problem is that we don’t have any land to farm, and we have no fields for planting rice,” the resettled villager said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We already have electricity, roads, hospitals, and schools, so everything would be fine if we just had some land,” he said.
Villagers displaced by work on the Namtha 1 Dam have been resettled on high ground because the low land near their former homes has been flooded, and many have been left to forage for food in mountaintop forests while others slash and burn land on the slopes to try to plant rice, the source said.
“We’re waiting for land allocations, but we don’t know when [the authorities and dam developers] are going to distribute it,” another resident of Resettlement Village No. 1 said, adding, “We need the land now so that we can clear it and prepare it for the coming rainy season.”
“Only a few of us have farmland in areas that haven’t flooded, but most of us don’t,” he said.
Relocated villagers also need jobs, added a resident of Resettlement Village No. 11. “Right now we have no jobs, nothing to do, and no income at all,” he said.
‘Land difficult to find’
Also speaking to RFA, an official in Luang Namtha’s Agriculture and Forestry Department said that authorities are looking for land suitable for farming that they can distribute.
“We’re looking for land. But it’s very difficult to find 1,000 hectares of farmable land near the Namtha 1 Dam because the area is mountainous and has no water,” he said.
An employee of the dam’s developer, the Namtha 1 Power Co. Ltd., meanwhile said his company is looking for ways to provide land to the villagers in the resettlement areas. “But we’re also looking for other ways to help them make a living.”
“One that would be sustainable would be to help them raise chickens, ducks, and pigs,” he said.
Water shortages, landslides
Villagers moved away from the area of the dam are also facing water shortages, especially during the country’s dry season, with one relocated villager saying, “We haven’t had enough water ever since we moved here, and the water we do have isn’t treated. We have to boil it before drinking it.”
“We live on a mountain far away from the Namtha River,” another villager said, adding, “We have to travel on steep slopes in order to fetch water from the river.”
Landslides also pose a danger to resettlement areas, with a road and parts of the foundation of one village, the Nam Ou 4 Dam Resettlement Village in Phongsaly province, cracking after heavy rains in August 2019, and several houses threatened with collapse.
According to its website, the developer of the Namtha 1 Dam, the Namtha 1 Power Co. Ltd., is a joint venture between China Southern Power Grid International Co. Ltd., which owns 80 percent of the project, and Electricite du Lao, with a 20 percent share.
Completed in 2018, the dam sold most of its generated power in 2019 to two Chinese special economic zones—the Golden Triangle SEZ in Bokeo province and the Boten SEZ in Luang Namtha, bordering China. After 28 years of operation, ownership of the dam will transfer to the Lao government, the developer’s website says.
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries, with ultimate plans for scores more, hoping to export most of the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power-demand arrangements.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.