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Laos grapples with its own green monsters

Landlocked Southeast Asian country facing double environmental threats of destructive dams and illegal logging
Laos grapples with its own green monsters

A Lao girl lifts a fishing net near to a resettlement village in Laos' Nakai plateau. The Nam Theun 2 dam, a 1.45 billion dollar project set to start operation in 2009, is the country's largest hydro-power project and biggest foreign investment. Critics say efforts to ease the impact on over 6,000 villagers being displaced by the reservoir, and tens of thousands more impacted by the mega-project, are moving too slowly.  PHOTO by HOANG DINH Nam/AFP

Published: January 10, 2018 05:50 AM GMT
Updated: January 10, 2018 05:51 AM GMT

Attapeu, a province in the southeast of Laos, is not a place that draws much attention. But a recent illegal logging scheme, in which a convoy of 27 trucks tried to cross into Vietnam, shone a light on it.

With illegal logging being a major problem in the country for years, the scheme itself was far from unexpected. But the consequences were. First it resulted in the removal of Nam Viyaketh as the governor of Attapeu. Then in late November the new governor assured the public that the people involved will be prosecuted, a possible game-changer in a country where illegal logging often goes unpunished.

The logging scam highlights the significant environmental threats Laos is facing. In a recent interview, Laotian Cardinal Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun said that it's one of the major issues in his country.

Cardinal Ling said what is happening to the environment is disturbing for everyone. "The environment is not only there to be gained from. If you do that, you value money higher than your own life. You will lose all human values and become less than animals. Animals are at least taking care of their children,” Cardinal Ling said.

Over the past two decades Laos, once a densely forested country, has lost much of its forests. Statistics from Global Forest Watch show that over 2.3 million hectares of tree cover has disappeared over the past 16 years. In 2016, an unfortunate record was set when 387,997 hectares of forest was cut down.

Statistics for 2017 have not yet been published, but things seem to be improving.

In 2016, the Lao government prohibited the export of all logs and sawn wood. According to Forest Trends, an NGO that aims to conserve forests, export numbers have decreased significantly since the ban. And although illegal logging is still happening on a regular base, the removal of the governor of Attapeu could be seen as a sign that the Lao government is finally serious about stopping it.

Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency, said the policy situation in Laos had dramatically improved.

"We have seen massive reductions in timber exports and logging on the ground in Laos, and feel that the new policies do appear to be holding," Wadley wrote in an email. "The removal of the Attapeu governor and the pledge to investigate in detail are entirely new developments in Laos. We feel Laos is heading in the right direction on policy."

But logging isn't the only threat. Of perhaps much greater concern is the plan to build a series of hydro-power dams along the Mekong river and its tributaries.

As part of the plan to become "the battery of Southeast Asia" Laos wants to construct nine dams in the lower Mekong mainstream and dozens more in the tributaries of Southeast Asia's longest river. A large amount of the generated electricity is intended to be exported to other Asian countries.

Scientists and activists have been warning of the disastrous impact of the dams. The Mekong is one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world, with thousands of fish, bird, plant and animal species. In 2016 alone, 115 new species were discovered. Hydro-power dams could drive a large number of species into extinction, experts say.

The Mekong is also one of the most productive river's in the world when it comes to fishing, with 60 million people depending on it for their livelihoods. Dams would not only cause irreparable damage to Laos, but also to communities in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Laos has already started construction of two dams, the Xayaburi Dam in the north of the country and the Don Sahong close to the border with Cambodia. The construction of the Pak Beng dam was announced earlier this year but has been delayed.

Ian Baird, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison who has been studying Laos hydro-power development , says the dams will have a "very large environmental impact" and block fish migration. "The Mekong river supports the largest freshwater fisheries in the world. It's a very important source for a lot of people. If you block fish migration, it's going to have a huge impact."

International Rivers has similar concerns. The NGO's Southeast Asia Program Director Maureen Harris said that a complete change in the river's ecosystem will happen if the dams go ahead. "It will be converted to stagnant reservoirs. A study showed that fisheries will be reduced by up to 42%. Many current species would become extinct. The Mekong Giant Catfish (one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world) would not be able to pass the dams."

The dams would also have a huge impact on sediment deposits, which give rivers their natural structure and stability. Blocking the water flow will make the river beds unstable. Experts say this could lead to a number of challenges, from more destructive floods to more erosion and the need to stabilize the river banks with dikes.

Marc Goichot, a water expert with the World Wildlife Fund, said that the problems are not well understood and the impacts are underestimated. "It's easy to measure the benefits, but it's more difficult to understand the complexities of the balance between water and sediment."

Laos expert Ian Baird believes the government is well aware of the impact. But hydro-power is "very tempting" because selling electricity can bring great profits, he explains. "There seems to be a willingness to sacrifice the rural people and the environment for that benefit."

Although Laos seems to be driven to continue its plan to build the dams, Baird points out that for electricity generation, more affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives are already available. "With the price of solar energy going down so much in the past years, there's really no reason to build these huge dams anymore. Before these dams were cheaper, but not anymore. Solar now has made hydroelectricity much less viable."

Reason enough for Cardinal Ling to call for a new mindset. One in which human values and the environment are placed above making money and material gain. "We have to realize that we have to take care of our home," the Laotian cardinal said. "Who will do so if we don't do it? We have to build our own world, we should not destroy it. Because then we destroy ourselves."

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