I SMELL PLASTIC bags burning as we enter the area of the banana plantations.
There is a lot of material on fire, melting around us and leaving chemical liquid stains on the dirt road. It is clear that this track has been used as a place to incinerate garbage, including plastic, foam boxes, paper and other detritus. The banana plantation industry is a dirty one, so unlike the fresh-looking bananas we find on supermarket shelves.
I have visited the controversial banana plantations in Laos, which Chinese companies are heavily invested in, several times during the past few months. This latest visit is to Huaixay, in northern Laos’s Bokeo province.
It is a vast area of plains and hills split by a stream flowing in to the Mekong River, which skirts the border between Laos and Thailand. What is interesting is that this particular plantation is just part of a “banana kingdom” that covers a huge tract of land.
“They rented our land for 10 years. It costs Bt4,000 a year. When a contract is signed, no one knows the impacts. Just over one year ago, local villagers realised this was not what they thought,” my Lao guide explains as we walk through the plantation.
“Chemicals have been used heavily. They leak into water sources and streams. Nowadays villages cannot use water from the streams. It is not safe.”
We see large piles of bags of chemical fertiliser waiting for the next round. Many of the used bags are scattered all over the place. We also see some kind of strong-smelling, milky-white chemical liquid in some areas.
My Lao friend tells me that at the village of Nam Oung, not far from where we are, two streams have been totally polluted by the hazardous chemicals used by banana plantations. Villagers have already tried to complain to provincial authorities.
“Most workers are Burmese or Hmong, with a wage of Bt300. I don’t see Laotians working in banana farms. No idea why. We’ve seen many workers who’ve become ill, especially with skin diseases. They cross the Mekong to Thailand for a doctor,” my friend says.
The plantation’s watering system comprises a plastic pipeline network that covers the whole site. The system relies on water from nearby streams and a few community ponds. Pumping water from communal sources did not provide an adequate supply, so the plantation owners dug their own deep wells to tap the groundwater.
But during this period of serious drought, it seems there is still not enough water for all of the banana trees. It is very obvious that the trees on the hillsides have dried up and are about to die. Those near the stream, however, look green and fertile.
“Villagers are now in trouble as their water sources have been taken away. In the past if there was a drought, we could still use water from our wells to refresh the vegetable gardens. We had something to eat. But this year it is all dried up because the groundwater has been pumped by the banana plantations. There is no more water for villagers’ vegetable gardens. When there is no food, it means villagers need to pay,” my Lao friend says.
He and the villagers here don’t feel so friendly towards the Chinese mega-farms. Asking about the reactions of local authorities, he says it is lucky that the new provincial governor has recognised the problem and banned new investment in the plantations.
“Don’t allow this kind of Chinese banana plantation in Thailand. We have had terrible lessons here in Laos. Don’t let it cross the border to Thailand,” my friend warns.
Just before this trip to Laos, I had a chance to visit a Chinese banana plantation on the Ing River, a tributary of the Mekong, in Chiang Rai’s Payamengrai district. A Chinese business has invested in the plantation, renting 2,700 rai (432 hectares) of land.
Thai authorities have not recognised such a large plantation – and no one knows if it is legal. The cultivation of bananas on the Ing has became an issue because the farm previously pumped large volumes of water from the river, creating problems for downstream communities, especially those in the Ban Ta township of Khun Tan district.
Amid the ongoing drought, the Ing River is one of only a few sources of water for sub-districts, and it has dried up partly because of the agribusiness. Villagers have lodged strong complaints with responsible state agencies. After the complaints were filed, district meetings were held and the district authority announced that pumping water from the Ing was forbidden. However, the plantation can still dig its own deep wells tapping groundwater.
“They are still using our groundwater. It is the same system underground; same body of water. This situation must be controlled by state agencies,” says Luan Pewphong, head of the Ta sub-district.
“Moreover, we are still worried about leaked chemicals in the Ing River. The banana farm is using chemicals intensely.”
Luan has filed a case before the National Human Rights Commission.
Banana trees at this farm still look to be in good condition. Experts have said the relative fertility of the land is because the plantation is in its first year and the land is still in a good natural state. However, adverse impacts are expected to be experienced in coming years.
In Laos and Thailand, communities on both banks of the Mekong are now terrified about the adverse effects of Chinese agribusiness. People’s health and the integrity of the natural environment are the first, often forgotten, casualties of this type of investment.
There has still been no official explanation by state authorities, in Thailand or in Laos, how these plantations will be regulated. Local people have been left behind to cope with this trans-border problem on their own, which is unfortunately business as usual.
Special to The Nation
Bokeo, Laos May 25, 2016 1:00 am