Laos, a country that is typically described as poor, underdeveloped, isolated and dependent, has ambitious plans for its rail development. At present, there is only 3.5 kilometers of rail track across the Mekong River, connecting the country to Thailand. The Laos government aims to build on that by creating a network of routes that would eventually link it to neighboring China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Though plans are currently up in the air, the rail project is touted as a development key that would transform the country from landlocked to land linked, reduce the poverty situation, and encourage regional integration with other ASEAN countries.
In 2010 I went to Laos and traveled along the proposed railway route, photographing along the way and interviewed various people. What started as a simple inquiry about what the country’s railway plan very quickly turned into an engaging experience as I encountered economists, sociologists, politicians and the locals. Through their perspectives, I get a sense of the interwoven complexities of this development. Instead of finding answers, I walked away with a myriad of questions.
The stakes involved in building this railway network are high. A complex series of changes – social, economic and ecological – would inevitably result. While possibly producing economic benefits, the railway project will at the same time cause groups of people to experience new poverty. As evidenced by past infrastructure development, the process involves relocation of villages, breaking up of existing communities, and destruction of agricultural land and forests – the very actions that undermine sustainable livelihoods and food security. Not only that, the railway network is likely to exacerbate existing problems of migration, illegal trade and smuggling.
Unlocking Laos, a project in progress, aims to chart the major forces of change that this railway plan will trigger. I am particularly concerned about the welfare of the communities who will be directly affected – mostly rural villagers who depend on their land for livelihood, and whom have no control over the turn of events. My project seeks to hint at the extent and depth of the change that is coming, and whatever one may feel about the destination, to draw attention to the human impact that such upheavals are likely to have.