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Precious forest

May 31, 2009

We look to rent a good off-road bike but end up with a 100cc scooter with a broken petrol guage and speedo. We get a new inner tube for the rear tyre, get pumped and head out of Thakek on a 3-hour voyage to the jungle. The road weaves through limestone karsts hanging with vegetation or jagged and sharp in nakedness. Some of the karsts have been blown apart and plundered for road-building material.

We pass fields being prepared for rice planting, fat black and pink buffalo wallowing happily in ponds and muddy pools, children firing stones from slingshots, women skirted in Lao sarongs breastfeeding or sweeping, men on tractor-driven carts balancing enormous branches, chickens, bundles of branches and babies. People wave at us: Sabadee! (hello) and smile. Our road follows the river back from its Mekong entry into the hills.

After about 80 kilometres, the near-sealed road disintegrates into mud and potholes, and the land becomes suddenly bare and brown. Engineering on a massive scale is underway here at the site of the massive Nam Theun II hydrodam, the Lao government’s pride and joy, which is slated to open in December (but likely to start production next year). We pass the near-complete powerhouse and then the road twists up and up through cooler damper air to Nakai village. Here we dismount, our backsides numb from the ride and our feet and hands tingling from the vibrations. We have arranged to meet American naturalist Bill Robichaud here, a man so crazily eccentric that “he looks for animals in the jungle, but not to eat them!”, as our Lao waitress explained to us in amazement. We meet in a surprisingly plush French restaurant, with prices to match – dam construction means foreigners, which means money. A couple of hundred metres from our table is the old river, already flooded into a large lake, drowning the ancestral homes of 6600 people, who have been relocated in nice looking, newly built, traditional stilted houses above the village.

The hydrodam was only made possible with World Bank assurances to the dam’s international partners that it would underwrite the project should things go tits-up politically in Laos. And the the Bank also loaned Laos its third of the $1.5 billion funds. But the money came with caveats, including that people displaced by the waters be compensated (hence the natty housing) and that the forest be properly protected. Unfortunately, even with what appears to be the best will, things aren’t so simple. When asked where they would like to be relocated to, the villagers unsurprisingly said they wanted to stay near to their village, their friends and their river. The problem is that prime land in the village was not available – people were already living there – and so all that was left was unfertile clay soils. Thee people were subsitance fishermen, but without the river, they needed alternatives, so they were provided with crops from rice to barley. Everything died in the poor soils. Buffalo were given to them, which also died having nothing to graze on.

The 6600 are not the only people effected. This is a trans-basin dam. The Nam Theun river, which is being dammed, doesn’t drop with enough of a gradient before entering the Mekong for sufficient profits to be generated by the hydropower company. So, in an ingenious piece of engineering, the river has been dammed into a large basin, at the bottom of which a 250-metre-long tunnel of 9 metre diameter has been bored down to the Xe Bang Fai river, which runs parallel to the Nam Theun but at lower altitude. While this will produce thousands of megawatts of electricity, most of which is to be sold to Thailand, it also dramatically alters two rivers (effecting 100,000 people who depend on them) and impacts on the Mekong, which they both flow into.

And the dam is already having an effect on the ecosystem here. This forest is very special. Scientists rank it second only to Madagascar in terms of small mammal diversity, and its 3500 square kilometre area has hardly been studied. It is an important refuge for 9 species of primate, tigers, leopards and elephants as well as newly found species, including some thought previously to have been extinct and known only from the fossil records. Among its oddities is the saola, an antelope-like bovinae, discovered in 1999, that is a new genus and possibly a new sub-family, Bill says. It lives high in the Annamite mountains. And there is the kha-nyou, which is a totally new mammal family. It is a type of rodent, related to the porcupine, which looks a little like a big squirrel and lives among the limestone karsts.

It’s Bill’s job to oversee protection of this vast wilderness, and he’s been given an impressive $1 million per year for the next 25 years to do so. But the dam has created plenty of problems. The raised water means that parts of the Nakai forests are now accessible to hunters on boats. The site was also flooded before all the vegetation was cleared, meaning that plant matter is rotting within the lake, poisoning the waters, killing fish and producing greenhouse gas emissions.

We meet a day after Bill has returned from a 2 week visit to some of the remote communities that live within the protected area. There are some tragic stories here. The forest is home to ancient hunter-gatherer communities as well as subsistence rice and vegetable farmers. But in recent years, the Lao government has been systematically seeking out and expelling hunter-gatherers and housing them in villages, where they are given some land to farm. Government officials find the presence of hunter-gathers a national embarassment that doesn not fir well with its new image of a modern developed nation. The last exodus of these groups from the forest was in 1999. Jim Chamberlain, a linguistic anthropologist based in Vientiane, believes that these communities represent the ethnic group from which the Vietnamese, Khmers and others emerged. They speak a distinct language from which the others diverged, he says.

But once removed from the forest, most of these people become sick and die. Entire tribes have been lost in this way. They believe that their protective spirits stayed on in the forest, too far to provide protection. But it could be that they are exposed to new viruses or simply become depressed and unable to settle into agronomy. The remaining few want to be allowed to return, and Bill is negotiating on behalf of 15 from one tribe, hoping to get them permission to stay.

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