Article by , 29 November 2007.
The sea of nodding pink lotus extends into a misty horizon. Fishermen and women catch tiny fish in hand nets, while others herd ducks in the open water. Some net the quarrelsome crabs recently identified as being unique to this wetland. Rice fields hem the wetlands, heads stooped with ripening grain. A hunter in baggy cutoffs passes with a home made rifle, looking up at the trees in the hope of bagging some flying protein. The rural world in an urban confined space.
I wondered what this small piece of paradise would look like covered with the promised Chinese-built factories and houses.
The seemingly doomed 20 square kilometers of That Luang wetlands, that embrace Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, are a source of joy for the eye and for the belly. Even the Buddha gets a cut of the action, as women gather lotus buds to sell at the markets for offerings at temple ceremonies. In times of floods, the wetlands act as a reservoir, absorbing the excess waters and preventing the city from being submerged.
Areas such as this are under threat in all parts of Asia. In late October this year, Greenpeace, aided by hundreds of local villagers, blockaded a palm oil development site in Riau, Indonesia. They back-filled the eight-metre-deep canals being dug to channel water out of the peat swamp.
Just like in Indonesia, Vientiane’s wetlands provide food and generate income for the poorest of the city’s urban population. The day I visited, teenagers were collecting snails for sale and for food. The place is a haven for the poor, particularly women. Widows and divorced women without other means of support, fish here. "I was born here" one man told me. "My family has always lived here. The water is clean. Closer to the city", he said, waving his hand in the direction of the metropolis, "it is polluted and no fish live there. But here we can still catch them."
Yes, the fishermen and women knew about the plans. The swamp would be filled as far as that galvanised iron factory one said, pointing his chin to the west. Where would he go? He shrugged and looked at the water. The vast amount of pollution generated by the proposed development would kill the surviving aquatic life, overwhelming its capacity to biodegrade waste. What would that do to the livelihoods of the 38,000 people who are thought to live around the wetland’s rim?
Unlike Indonesia, protest is impossible, even if it was culturally appropriate. Individual and family punishment is still the norm for those that speak up in Laos.
It is said that the King, when he was alive, would attend the annual Ork Phansa (end of Buddhist Lent) celebrations by sailing down the Mekong to a wharf located near where the Beer Lao factory is currently situated. From there he would take a small but highly decorated pirogue to the highly revered That Luang temple for prayers. Some old Laotians can remember seeing that event, and remarked that it was a wonderful time when the marshes were full and water reflected the clouds and rich blue of the sky.
In 1995 I visited a wetlands project in South Sumatra, Indonesia. Labeled a swamp reclamation project, it supported the then President’s Soeharto’s fanatical if not deluded vision of making Indonesia self sufficient in rice-growing. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) had supported this delusion by lending more than US$200 million, most of which was filched by the nimble and creative bookkeeping of the Indonesians involved.
The swamps were converted into concentrated rows of rice fields, and hapless families were imported from Java and Bali to work the land. It was one of the worst projects I have ever seen. People’s lives were made a misery. The daily tide floated human waste to the surface where it contaminated drinking water; children died in huge numbers. The soil was acid when exposed to air, as well as saline, so nothing would grow. In despair, the valiant farmers grew orchids which they sold to nearby Singapore. The Department of Agriculture, keen to show the ADB their diligence, forced the farmers to rip the orchids out and replant the doomed rice seedlings. During later storm surges, the conversion of mangroves to rice-paddies enabled the seas to enter. It was development torture.
Recently World Vision, the Poverty Reduction Fund and World Food Program collaborated on a similar completely ill-conceived, but probably well intentioned, project in southern Laos. By filling the chain of wetlands they thought to provide poor farmers with more rice fields. What they did not understand is that the wetlands are sources of valuable protein and micronutrients. The local people had developed both a taste for the aquatic foods and well developed ways by which to maximize the haul. Filling the wetlands increased poverty and malnutrition, as fish is more expensive than rice. Selling fish had enabled landless farmers to buy rice, and rice farmers to balance their diets. Without the wetlands, malnutrition quickly set in.
Wetlands are there because of subsurface run off and geological strata that funnel water into the ponds. Vientiane simply does not have alterative drainage and infrastructure to carry that amount of water. The Mekong in 2007 rose higher than it has in many years due to typhoons in the north. Now more than at any time, Vientiane needs these wetlands to ameliorate any future flooding arising from global climate chaos. Those needing a reality check should look at the photos of Vientiane in 1967, when flood waters engulfed the famous Morning Market.
However, wetlands seem to be perceived as wastelands. Engineers dream of filling them and town planners see flattened expanses to be covered in urban development. Already the incremental filling of the Vientiane wetlands have sent several animals into local extinction, the most dramatic being the population of Siamese crocodiles as well as several species of birds and fish.
While countries of the economic North are seeing the error of filling wetlands, and are now trying to reconstitute marshes, Laos seems to be hell bent on selling one of its national treasures to its neighbours. According to the Vientiane Times (October 12), the Government who owns most of the wetlands is about to re-zone them as a development area after a Chinese group showed interest and the colour of their money to some of the more starry-eyed in the government. There is I gather, a lot of controversy, as many in government are bitterly opposed to the conversions.
A significant amount of the already shrunken wetlands will be handed to Chinese developers for suburban development to house, it is said, 18,000 Chinese. The Times went on to say that the Chinese company is ready to invest billions, and turned down another site offered to them, claiming it was too far out of town. The developers promise shops, factories and hotels; and of course, housing for an increasingly visible number of Chinese people in Laos.
It is hard to know who will benefit, except maybe the folks that take the inevitable kickbacks. Laos is regarded as one of the more corrupt regimes by Transparency International who ranked them with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Several donors nations have threatened to pull up stakes, but they will not be missed, as private equity pours in.
Moreover, construction logistics are a nightmare. Structures need extremely deep footings and structural cross bracing, or will crack and crumble. Rising damp eats construction materials. In Florida, anyone who wants to build something as small as a boat ramp on the famous Everglades, has to get planning permission from the Environmental Protection Authority and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
A Laotian engineer commented "It’s the craziest idea I have ever heard in my life", suggesting it was an ecocidal money laundering project.
The ex-head of the newly defunct Mekong Wetlands Project suggested that the sacrifice of the marshes represented the crush between development imperatives and rising land prices. That may be true, but the land is clearly not for Laos but for Chinese companies and speculators, and the land loss will seriously compromise the livelihoods of thousands of Laotian residents. Rather it is a mark of the more brazenly open influence of the Chinese on the Laotian government. This year the Chinese government requested and were granted the ability to influence planning and development strategy in the northern provinces which border China. It is, some say, colonisation by stealth.
As the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported, the That Luang Marsh helps keep Vientiane's head above water.
The conservation of urban wetlands leads to economic gains for both urban residents and municipal councils, generates goods and services with an economic value in excess of US$ 4.8 million per year. These benefits accrue to the 38,000 people that live directly around the marsh, and the estimated 161,000 residents of Vientiane.
The wetlands offer flood attenuation and wastewater treatment services valued at US$2 million a year according to the IUCN and WWF. In the wet season, some city roads quickly become impassable. Existing urban infrastructure and the lack of reticulated sewage treatment means that Vientiane is unable to provide the vast sink that the marshes offer, much less convert the water into income. It has been estimated that the services offered by the That Luang ecosystem constitute investment savings of more than $18 million in damage costs avoided, and $1.5 million that would need to be spent on technologies required to fulfill the same functions. I now understand the engineer’s response.
These marshes have some of the densest settlements found in Laos and have the longest history of settlement, not surprising in view of the sheer generosity of the natural environment. In the 1990s about 1,000 hectares were reclaimed by rice farmers. Gordon Claridge, a specialist in wetland ecology and birds, reported that in the 1990’s the municipality dug a drainage channel and constructed a pumping station to enable new rice fields to be claimed, cutting off the direct link between the Mekong and the wetlands. The marshes have been decreasing ever since.
As pointed out by several Laotian scientific writers - Chanphhenxay, Latsamina and Xaphakdy - the problem is that there are no unified rules or regulations related to town planning, urban development or in this case wetlands. A Laotian economist recently calculated that the value of the rice produced is overwhelmingly trounced by the value of the wetlands just being there. The claims that filling and growing rice on the wetlands alleviates poverty may be true for the rice farmers, who often come into conflict with the landless over creeping intrusions, but not for the broader population.
The Laos Constitution insists that the state and the people have a responsibility to protect and use natural resources renewably. The development of the That Luang wetlands would seem, then, to run counter to the Constitution.
The ink has not been put on paper, so there is still time for those opposed to this project to make their voices heard. But the case is hindered by the absence of an avenue for protest, well resourced and independent town planning expertise or a cohesive city plan, and the fact that they stand between a minister and his payoff. Blatant land grabs by the well connected ensure that land is used according to economic gain and not national benefit. One only has to see the brands of cars that prowl the streets of Vientiane to realise that some are making lots of money in the least developed country.
The symbol of the Buddha, the lotus, may well soon be overtaken by the symbol of capitalism, the factory. That it is being done in and by nations that at one time eschewed capitalism, is the final irony.
Originally published in Online Opinion on 29 Nov 07. This work is licensed under a .