Authorities in northwestern Laos are forcing hundreds of families to relocate to make way for the expansion of a lignite power plant, setting the stage for a dispute over compensation with residents who say they will be shortchanged by the communist government’s ambitious development plans.
A chief source of social tension in Laos and other Southeast Asian countries is the widespread practice of land grabs in which authorities remove residents and seize land for development projects or foreign-invested enterprises without paying fair compensation for lost crops, property, and livelihoods.
The 1,878 MW Hongsa power plant, the first lignite plant in Laos, began Phase I of its operations in 2015. Phase II began the following year when construction was completed, and now the plant is planning Phase III, an expansion.
Hongsa’s construction in the northwestern province of Xayaburi resulted in thousands of villagers losing land with little compensation. The expansion will displace hundreds more residents.
“The plant recently gained a new concession of an addition of 2,700 hectares of land for our Phase III expansion. The land will cover the entire village of Kiw Ngiew and a part of Pang Bong Village in Ngeun District, Xayaburi Province,” a member of Hongsa’s management team told RFA’s Lao Service June 4.
Kiw Ngiew is home to 115 families, while 18 more households live in Pang Bong, according to the source.
A provincial official confirmed the figures to RFA, adding that the province was helping to assess the families’ losses.
“The plant and authorities have agreed to pay 1,200 kip [U.S. $0.12] per square meter of farmland and 2,000 kip [$ 0.20] per square meter for constructed facilities,” the official said.
The residents claim the compensation is only a fraction of the true market value of their homes and farmland.
“It’s only 50 percent of what our property is worth. We need higher compensation because after we move to the resettlement village, we don’t want to be poor,” a Kiw Ngiew resident told RFA.
“We want to be able to live our life the same way we do now,” the resident said.
Another Kiw Ngiew resident told RFA that the villagers were given no choice but to move.
“Most of us want to stay because the compensation is too low and the new homes will be far below the value of our current homes,” the second Kiw Ngiew resident said.
A third villager told RFA that many were worried about what life would be like in the resettlement village.
“We’re still staying in our homes in our village and farming our own land for now because nothing has happened yet, but when we move to the resettlement village, where are we going to farm?” the third resident said.
“What kind of land are we going to get, if any at all? We know that the new land will be on top of a mountain with no access to water,” the third resident said.
In several other relocation cases, the central or provincial governments nominally cleared land for those who had to move, but often the land was situated in areas that would make agriculture either impossible or extremely difficult.
RFA reported that one group of relocated survivors of a dam collapse were so unhappy with the plots of land they were given after the disaster that they returned to the ruins of their old village to farm what was left of their land after the waters receded.
A resident of Pang Bong, the other village affected by Hongsa’s expansion, echoed the same concern to RFA.
“The new land will not be good, and nothing will grow on it. We will lose all our farms and gardens that are currently sitting on flat land near a small river,” the Pang Bong resident said.
“When that power plant expands, it will displace all the residents of our two villages. We’re losing our farms, cattle, livestock, our forest and our water source. All of these resources are going to be taken away by this project,” the Pang Bong resident added.
Another resident of Pang Bong told RFA about everything the residents would lose in the relocation away from the river.
“People in our village can drink, bathe, fish, grow vegetables and raise cattle, livestock and poultry.”
The Lao language version of the Vientiane Times reported on June 2 that construction on the resettlement village began March 1 and is expected to be complete by November.
Beyond the human toll, Hongsa’s expansion will be detrimental to the area’s biodiversity, an environmental official told RFA.
“The expansion will cut down large parts of the forest, causing wildlife to disappear,” the official said.
Health experts say that Hongsa is dangerous to those living near it, increasing risk of cancer, respiratory problems, and birth defects due to exposure to pollution.
The Hongsa powerplant, like many of Laos’ hydroelectric dams, generates power that Laos sells to neighboring countries, in line with the country’s aim to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia.
Though the Lao government is betting on power generation to transform the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact on fisheries and agriculture, and the displacement of villagers.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.