Xekaman Dams and GMS Regional Interconnectivity Agenda Leading to Rights Violations

Tanya Lee

In November, international agencies representing several donor countries, alongside the United Nations Development Program, pledged to support poverty alleviation in Lao PDR. Last week, more commitments for development support to Laos were made during the meeting of development partners at the 2014 Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Summit in Bangkok. But in a country ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world (Transparency International), with no process for revenue transparency and no safe channels by which citizens can hold their government accountable for decisions, the words of well-meaning speeches at these high-level events do not reflect on-the-ground realities of this pursuit for national development in Laos.  One of the starkest illustrations of how this heavily lauded process of ‘regional interconnectivity’ can lead to the marginalization and exploitation of entire rural populations and the slicing up of mountains and forests once teeming with life is the construction site of the Xekaman 1-Xanxay Dam Projects.

In the southern Lao province of Attapeu, near the border of Vietnam and close to the confluence of the transboundary Sekong and Sekaman rivers, the agenda for 'inclusive development' has taken a sinister twist. Here is a zone designated for rapid development: vast expanses of forest are being flattened by Vietnamese and Lao companies to make way for rubber tree plantations, the development of several large hydropower dams and marble and potash mining. This area has been home to thousands of indigenous people, who are now being told they must comply with orders from authorities to move to designated resettlement zones – beside and within the new rubber plantation concessions.

The dams, including the Xekaman 1-Xanxay, Sekong 3 A, Sekong 3 B, Xekaman 4, and Dak Emuele, are all planned to be part of the GMS interconnectivity and electricity harmonization program, which is a focal point of regional investment for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. These dams are being built primarily with investment from Vietnamese companies, including Song Da and the Vietnam Rubber Group, along with support from Swiss consulting group AF-Consult, and financial backing from Japan’s NOMURA Group. After a construction hiatus due to financial problems faced by the dam developer, the first in the cascade of dams, the Xekaman 1-Xanxay, is now approximately 40% complete with an active workforce of several hundred Vietnamese people.

In November, I met with villagers living near the Xekaman 1-Xanxay construction zone to hear an update from them about their understanding of the future. Over ten years ago, these villagers were instructed to move from the surrounding hillsides into two temporary resettlement zones on either side of the Sekaman River. At the time, they were told the move was necessary in order to make way for the preparation of the Xekaman 1 Dam and that they would be settled in permanent homes in the future. However, they have yet to find out the timeline for such a resettlement process, as they continue to live in makeshift homes built more than a decade ago.  In the meantime, they are cultivating the surrounding area with rice and vegetables in order to eke out a living from the land.

With construction ongoing at Xekaman 1, the air is now thick with dust, there is constant noise from building crews, and villagers attest that land they were relying on is being subsumed by the dam site. As one woman villager from Ban Hindam explained to me, “The company is not just using the land, they are destroying it. We have already lost a lot from the dam construction.”

During my visit, there was a palpable sense of apprehension. The source of peoples’ anxiety was two-fold. Company and government representatives were present in some of the villages, actively instructing people that they would soon be required to move to the designated resettlement site beside the rubber tree plantations.

As if underlining the importance of obedience to these orders, green army trucks were simultaneously patrolling the entire area. At one hamlet located beside the dam, I watched heavily armed personnel disembark from their trucks and enter into villagers’ homes. I was informed that random checks and interrogations were being conducted to check if villagers were stealing and selling marble from a newly opened mining site. Yet, when villagers have no independent forms of transportation (with the exception of  mini household tractors) and limited personal space to store stashes of marble, it is questionable why men with machine guns would feel the need to search through the homes of people who are already under duress.

Despite the hardships of their current situation, villagers are generally resistant to the idea of moving to the site of rubber plantations and becoming dependent on wages they believe will be too low to provide for their families. They assert themselves as farmers who live off of the land and the rivers; prepared to earn cash by selling produce in the markets at the Lao/Vietnamese border post or Attapeu. According to one villager living adjacent to the construction area of Xekaman 1 in Ban Don Khen, “If we have to move to the place the company says we must go to, we do not want to move. We do not want to live in a place surrounded by rubber plantations. There is no place to farm or go freely to the forest. We would want to move to a place where there is enough land to farm and forest around to get food from.”

Some families who have been living in a temporary resettlement area beside the construction site of the Xekaman 1 Dam decided earlier this year to self-relocate. Now they are being told they must move to a designated resettlement site beside rubber tree plantations. They assert themselves as farmers and do not want to be forced to become plantation labourers.
Some families who have been living in a temporary resettlement area beside the construction site of the Xekaman 1 Dam decided earlier this year to self-relocate. Now they are being told they must move to a designated resettlement site beside rubber tree plantations. They assert themselves as farmers and do not want to be forced to become plantation labourers.
International Rivers, November 2014.

I also met with a group of five families who have purposefully sought to resettle on their own, despite company objections, away from the dam, and also at a distance to the rubber tree plantation concessions. Their hope is to continue their independent livelihoods as small-holder rice and vegetable farmers. I visited them earlier this year, and at that time, they were just beginning to build housing structures. Now, they have been able to establish themselves and have finished building their homes. However, they too have been visited by armed and government personnel. Villagers have been informed by these authorities that the site they have moved to is part of the concession for Xekaman 1-Xanxay, and that they will need to move to the ‘proper’ resettlement site. One of the young men, heading up a family asserted, “We will only move from here if there is no other choice. The government, police, army and company have come to visit us two times to ask us to move.  We do not want to be forced to become plantation laborers, so we haven’t agreed to leave here yet.”

These are brave words spoken in a country that human rights groups have highlighted as a place where fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly are severely suppressed, and long prison sentences are understood as the norm for anyone seen as expressing dissent (Human Rights Watch). Hopefully these families’ efforts to assert their identities as small-holder subsistence farmers will not be in vain.

What will it take for foreign governments offering official development aid to Lao PDR, and international institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank promoting GMS interconnectivity projects, to recognize that their financial assistance may be directly complicit with heavy-handed tactics used to coerce local people into giving up land they have been cultivating and becoming cheap wage laborers? It remains to be seen if they will take heed of the realities of those at the margins of the ‘development agenda’ and proactively use their leverage with the Government of Laos to push for greater transparency along with fulfillment of its human rights commitments and obligations.

Sunday, December 21, 2014