Lao villagers to be displaced by dam want more money for their trouble

Villagers in two northern provinces of Laos who will be displaced by the Luang Prabang Dam along the Mekong River want more compensation than is being offered by local authorities and the project developer.

The U.S. $3 billion, 1,460-megawatt dam will be built by Thailand’s Xayaburi Power Company Ltd. and Vietnam’s PetroVietnam Power Corp. The project is being financed by the Luang Prabang Power Company Ltd., a consortium of the Thai and Vietnamese power companies and the Lao government.

Dam construction was planned to begin in 2020 and end in 2027, but the developer is assessing how the project will affect the nearby town of Luang Prabang, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The hydropower project will be one of several cascading dams built on the Mekong, as the Lao government pursues its controversial economic plan to become the “battery of Southeast Asia,” exporting electricity from more than 50 large and small-scale dams on the river and its tributaries.

Power purchase agreements for the sale of electricity generated by the Luang Prabang Dam to Thailand and Vietnam have yet to be signed.

In the meantime, residents of Nga district in Oudomxay province and Chomphet district in Luang Prabang province say authorities are shortchanging them for the land and other property they would lose to the project.

Oudomxay officials offered 100 million kip (U.S. $8,500) per hectare of farmland to locals, said a Nga district resident, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

“The offer is less than what we are fighting for, and the new homes [offered] would be worth less than our current homes are,” he told RFA on Monday. “That has been the disagreement between the authorities and us, the villagers, for some time now.”

Another villager in the district who will lose his farmland to the project said that he and others have demanded 150 million kip (U.S $12,800) per hectare.

“So far, the dam developer and the authorities haven’t responded to our demand,” he said. “If the demand is not met, then we won’t give up our land to the project.”

Oudomxay province Governor Bounkhong Lachiemphone held a meeting on March 14 with the chiefs from 12 villages to be affected by the project and those responsible for compensating and relocating people displaced by the Luang Prabang project.

The dam developer said the project would flood a dozen villages on the bank of the Mekong River in Nga district, including Lath Han, Khok Phou, Yoiyai and Phonsavang villages, and that 1,263 households would need to be relocated.

The governor advised the chiefs to talk with residents about how the dam would help to reduce chronic poverty among villagers.

But a village chief who attended the meeting said that the new homes the project developer has built for villagers forced to move do not have an enclosed ground floor, as do their current homes.

“Members of our village are not happy with that,” he said. “Our people would be poorer, [so] I proposed at last week’s meeting that the authorities and the dam developer enclose the lower level as well.”

The village chief also asked that a new Buddhist temple, roads, a school, and power-generating and water facilities be built in the resettlement village.

An official from the provincial Energy and Mines Department said that the current compensation rate stands. The government is now waiting for the dam developer to clear the land for the resettlement village, the official said.

‘We’ll be poorer than before’

The hydropower dam also will affect residents of Houei Yor village, Chomphet district, in Luang Prabang province.

One villager said residents expected to receive 70 million-100 million kip per hectare of farmland, depending on how far the land is from the main road.

“Most of us are not pleased with the offers, and we’re demanding higher compensation between 130 million-150 million kip per hectare,” he said on Tuesday.

An official from the province’s Natural Resources and Environment Department told RFA on Jan. 19 that authorities already had established the location for the two resettlement villages and were looking for agricultural land that the displaced villagers could work.

“Farmland in this area is scarce because it’s mountainous,” he said. “We might be able to provide only 0.7 hectare of land instead of one hectare for each family.”

A resident who will lose his rice field to the project said that amount of land is not enough to raise goats, pigs and cows or to grow papaya and banana.

Another villager said he is worried about having enough food to eat.

“We’ll get less land, so we’ll produce less food,” he said. “We’ll be poorer than before.”

The project’s potential impact on the cultural history of the region is another potential complication.

The dam will sit about 16 miles north of the city of Luang Prabang, the once royal capital of Laos that lies in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Known for its Buddhist temples, including one that dates to the 16th century, the town of roughly 60,000 people was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

An official at the World Heritage Site Department in the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism said that the dam developer must do a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) as required by UNESCO, the U.N. education, scientific and cultural organization.

“We’re also required to report the findings of the HIA to UNESCO,” the official said. “We want to make sure that the town of Luang Prabang will not lose its status as a World Heritage Site.”

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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