Last year the wildly successful Elephant festival in Hongsa (in northern Laos) attracted around 10,000 visitors. About 2000 of those were foreigners, some leaning heavily on sticks, others elegant attired, others dreadlocked and ganja inspired.
They had made, in white fella terms, an epic journey. It’s not like Hongsa is just around the corner. Some, mainly the embassy set, had flown in by chopper, while others had taken the 7 hour very slow and very uncomfortable boat trip from Luang Prabang and endured another 2 hours riding sideways in a local truck with compromised suspension. Others opted for a 3 day motorcycle ride and sore knees.
But as the weekend and program rolled on, all inhibitions were lost in the bonhomie of watching these wonderful creatures go through their paces, bowing and sweeping their trunks with diva like skill. They were watched, applauded, photographed and simply adored. Their mahouts, steering the great beasts by digging into the soft spot behind their ears, were full of pride, smiling quietly as they took the accolades and appeared on thousands of digital screens.
Behind the scenes wide hipped women in traditional skirts took money from thirsty visitors, sticking wads of kip into capacious pockets. Family members, brought in like the Fifth Cavalry, also took home a pile. It was the sort of tourism that gains international plaudits. Money and gains directed into the hands of the villagers. The people put on a show and pulled it off with aplomb. They and the elephants should become an annual must-see for visitors to Lao.
Sayaboury province which cuddles like spoons into Thailand, is Lao’s major repository of domesticated elephants. It thus maintains the major gene pool needed for the survival of the species, which is dwindling at a rate which should be cause for concern.
On the big day of the elephant baci when the elephants are reunited with any stray souls that have nicked off to the forest for quick smoke, the senior Lao government officials watching and clapping could not have helped noticing what a cha cha event this was.
So why did they persist with the go ahead to a lignite mine and power station to be built only 5 kms from the village that hosted the festival?
To mine lignite these days is like admitting to smoking five packs per day. It’s a dirty shitty source, so heavy in sulphur, carbon and water that the only effective way of coaxing energy from its sullen source is at the mine mouth; otherwise the mere cost of transport makes it uneconomic.
Residents of Vientiane are aghast. Eco tourism officials are sputtering.
The original power station, was far too uneconomic, a mere 684 watts. So the scale has been pumped up to twice its’ earlier dimension. It promises 1,650 watts if only BANPU, the Thai company pushing the mine can find a partner. It is thought that the state electricity authority EGAT or its investment arm. EGCO will come to the party along with the Government of Lao..
Residents of the nearby mahout villages are uncertain if they will be required to move. Relocation due to construction is one thing, as it comes usually with some form of economic package and assistance; but involuntary relocation due to fallout and chemically induced devastation of elephant fodder growing plants is another. Sayaboury is being unsustainably logged and food sources for jumbos are dwindling. Acid rain and excessive sulphur dioxide emissions are an additional burden to the people and elephant herds of Sayaboury.
One question (and there are many) is why in this day of global concern over climate chaos can such a mine and plant even be considered. Even the company itself has admitted that lignite releases noxious gases. When confronted by Greenpeace last year, Thailand’s The Nation reported:
“A senior BLCP staff member denied the accusation,(that BLCP was importing green house gas producing coal from Rio Tinto Australia) saying the plant had implemented all measures demanded by its environmental impact assessment.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source claimed the plant used high-grade bituminous coal -not low-grade lignite that would emit a high volume of sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”( Sept 2006)
Banpus other major lignite mine and power generation plant in Mae Moh near Lampang in Northern Thailand, attracted sustained criticism and activism, prompting investigations by Thais Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment. They monitored the air and found excessive levels of sulphur dioxide. As a result, a complex set of engineering and technical controls including meteorological warnings governs the running of the plant. Electrostatic precipitators and forced oxidation flues to remove excessive sulphur were installed. Occasionally the plant has to switch to low sulphur diesel run operations.
The major difference between this plant and that in Hongsa is that the public was allowed to show its displeasure. In Lao, any public demonstrations would be dispersed and the instigators arrested and possibly ‘reeducated’ at one of the euphemistically named ‘seminars’ rumoured to be still in existence. In Mae Moh technical assistance is available and regular air and soil monitoring possible. It is doubtful whether similar systems and expertise are available in Lao. Maintenance, and sensitivity to meteorological fluctuations is possible in Thailand but maybe not yet reliable in Lao, whose technical elite who fled the Pathet Lao victory, have yet to be replaced by the new generation of experienced professionals.
Despite the government initiated engineering controls, a Greenpeace study in 2002, showed how the Mae Moh Power Plant produces 4,380,000 tons of fly ash along with 39 tons of the neurotoxin mercury annually. The samples of fly ash tested contained three times more arsenic and fourteen more times more mercury than you would find in normal soil.
This bodes badly for Hongsa where people and animals are dependent on soil and water. It is likely that adjacent river Kene will suffer contamination from pollutants. Fish provide a major source of dietary protein, and fish are known to take up mercury where it bio-accumulates. The substance is extremely toxic. Inorganic mercury, as present in the fly ash, can be converted by bugs found in soil and fresh water into the very poisonous methylmercury. Elephants are already heavy enough.
It is no wonder that a nearby resident in Lampang complained that the plant represented the capitalists running over the small people. Mae Moh power station, he complained, has a 9 hole golf course.
Lao has bragged that it will be the “Battery of Asia”. That has another connotation of sitting immobile in your own mess, while everyone else gets the fruits of one’s productivity.
Over the past twelve months Lao has initiated many hydro and power projects. They are building like, erm, dam busters. A Lao friend joked that the only way to earn money in Lao is to teach swimming, as most of the nation will be under water soon.
But several things give cause for concern. Firstly most of the power projects, like the Hongsa project, are private investments in partnership with the Lao government, meaning there is no serious oversight of environmental or social concerns. Anyone thinking the Lao regulations have protective teeth, need only to look at the Nam Theun 1 dam which will spell devastation for fish breeding and biodiversity in the Nam Kading river and Protected Area.. The investors, Malaysia’s engineering giant Gamuda is riding roughshod over local and conservation concerns and proceeded with work before the final go a head was issued by the Government. The Government rather than canceling the project or inflicting other sanctions, sees this merely as an additional source of revenue through ‘fines’.
The previous government of Taksin Shinawatra put a slow down on many of the energy projects planned for Lao after taking a backwards glance at the debt caused by the economic boom and subsequent bust. The Thai economy, while showing all signs of rapid heating, may be at risk of over-inflating. The Economist magazine recently warns that Thailand’s economic system is not resilient enough to stand too much pressure and inflation has been a persistent problem. Both political and economic stability are necessary to ensure that Lao is not left with a heap of environmental and social mud pies to clean up if the investments fail.
Recently the Thai government announced that it would build a nuclear power plant to deal with its rising energy needs. The Lao Minister for Energy instantly rejected any notion that this might effect Lao power projects or the inference that diversifying income sources might be wise. But his vulnerability showed.
Public outcry about coal plants, has initiated calls for Thailand to initiate more renewable energy projects. This comes hot on the heels of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who pointed out that SE Asian nations like Thailand and Lao are expected to suffer most from climate change in terms of loss of life and effects on the economy. The increased frequency and severity of extreme weather producing more intense flooding and droughts are anticipated. All of which will be bad news for large mammals like elephants that eat 150-200 kgs of green mass per day.
While there is substantial evidence that Laos people could benefit directly from eco tourism and low impact activities like sericulture, the government seems hell bent on destroying the natural wealth that most would envy.