Villagers who lived near an under-construction hydropower project in Laos are unhappy with the compensation they have received for vacating homes and farmland when construction began three years ago, the villagers told RFA.
The 240-megawatt Nam Ngum 4 Dam has displaced residents in two districts of northern Laos’ Xieng Khouang province. In addition to claiming 18 homes, a livestock farm, three tourist sites, and 11 resort hotels, the project when complete will flood the rice fields of 199 families.
“The compensation is low, too low. We lost all of our homes and farmland for only 84 million kip [1 million kip = U.S. $100] per hectare [2.5 acres],” a landowner in the province’s Phoukout district told RFA’s Lao Service June 2.
“We inherited the rice field from our ancestors. We demanded at least 100 million kip, well below the market price of 200 million kip per hectare for our farmland,” said the landowner, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Another landowner, from Pek district, told RFA that villagers there had asked for the same amount per hectare.
“But the provincial authorities said that the amount set by the committee for compensation and resettlement had been fair and appropriate,” the Pek landowner said.
Another Pek villager told RFA, “With the compensation we received, we can’t afford to buy land anywhere, so now most of us don’t have land to farm."
Laos is home to dozens of hydropower projects in various stages of completion on the Mekong River and its tributaries in a bid to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia,” by selling the generated power to neighboring countries.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, questionable financial and power demand arrangements, and displacement of villagers without adequate compensation.
An official from Xieng Khouang Province, who worked with the Nam Ngum 4 Dam’s developer, told RFA that nearly all the affected villagers have accepted the offered compensation.
“Only one resort hotel owner refused to accept a two billion kip offer, demanding five billion. That demand is too high, so we are still in negotiation,” the official said.
People displaced by development projects in Laos have almost no choice but to accept whatever the government decides is fair compensation because all land is owned by the state.
Laos’ land law states that citizens can have land use rights, but these can be revoked by the state for reasons of national interest, including development projects.
Another law on compensation states that developers along with local committees for compensation and resettlement must determine fair compensation, leaving no window for input from the affected villagers themselves. Refusal to vacate can even lead to arrest.
Authorities arrested a young woman named Keo from a suburb of the capital Vientiane in April last year, detaining her for one month.
“She was held for rejecting compensation, protesting against a land grab, and posting videos pertaining to her land dispute online,” a family member told RFA June 3.
“They finally released her after we agreed to accept the compensation and give up our land to the investor, and she had to promise not to protest again,” her family member said.
Authorities arrested a man from the same village at the same time and held him until February 2021, his family member told RFA.
Inadequate compensation for people displaced by development projects is very common in Laos.
In Sept. 2020, RFA reported that all families affected by the construction of the Nam Theun 1 Dam in Laos’ central Bolikhamxay province had accepted compensation, with 125 of the 624 affected families initially refusing compensation in March 2019, but relenting more than a year later.
In August 2020, villagers in Xayaburi province, in the country’s northwest told RFA they were unhappy with compensation they received after being displaced by the Nam Hung 1 Dam project.
People living along the route for an expressway in Vientiane told RFA in July 2020 that they felt the compensation paid for losing their homes was too low at one sixth the market value. The same month, people displaced by the Lao-China Railway in the northwestern province of Luang Namtha told RFA they were hesitant to accept compensation because they were unsure how much they could expect and when they would receive payment.
In every case, local government officials told RFA that the compensation was fair according to the government’s assessment.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.