Last week, we learned how farmers are finding themselves with no other option than to sell their land to Vietnamese companies for intensive rubber tree farming. How far are these companies ready to go to develop intensive rubber tree farming in Laos? What will the consequences be for local farmers? (Part 2/2. By Geoffroy Caillet, Originally published in French in Enfants du Mekong Magazine n°168)
To be able to intensively farm rubber trees quickly, the business owners pulled out all the stops. They used every means possible, including rushed land-grabbing. Sounthone shakes his head: “The smallest plots, which were yet to be sold, were cleared on the sly during a larger clearing process.”
When it came to official means of persuasion, unrealistic wage prospects followed trivial compensation. The companies, with the support of the government, promised the former owners manual labour in the rubber forests for 1.5 million Kips a month (the equivalent of £121). These promises were short-lived. “At the beginning, there was lots of work,” continues Sounthone, “because lots of clearing was needed. Now, there’s not a lot to do and we have to wait for seven to ten years before we can harvest the latex. Wages have fallen to a maximum of 200, – 300,000 Kips (£20).”
The problems, however, do not stop there: only men aged between 18 and 40 are accepted as workers. When maintenance is required for the seedlings, Sang, Sounthone’s son, can work as a day labourer for 25 000 Kips per day. But the situation is difficult for Sonexay, Sounthone’s father, who, at 60 years old, has found himself banned from working on his old land. This is a job that would be welcome; it would allow him to earn that little bit extra and enable him to buy the rice that he can no longer produce. This year, a bag weighing 50 kilos has risen from 20,000 to 35,000 Kips. Kestana, a neighbour of his, accumulated 7 million Kips in debt to keep her family.
Strangers at home
By the roadside, a group of men are marching in a line. “The Vietnamese,” Sounthone recognises them due to their conversation. A few metres further on, a sign written in the language of Ho Chi Minh points to the offices of one of the companies set up here. For Vietnam, economic entryism in Laos is child’s play. The country can rely on a network of Vietnamese people who settled in the country during the time of the French protectorate. They have been merchants for generations, and have kept close connections with their country of origin, which helps foster ties and trade.
Nevertheless, it is mostly thanks to the Laotian government that Vietnam, the country’s long-standing big brother country is able to intensively farm rubber trees – likewise for China, to the north of the country. The juicy profit that the government makes from awarding the concessions contrasts with the paltry compensation that is given to the population in Oudomsouk. Moreover, giving up food farming leaves the country with an increased level of food dependency. Sounthone’s neighbour, Beleng, mentions the five-year regional development plans to which the Vietnamese have committed. Measures that have been implemented include providing villages in the region with electricity, which is of course highlighted by road signs which boast of “active support” for farming communities.
However, the authorities’ means of persuasion no longer have anyone fooled here: “We were told that our crops were worthless and that rubber trees would help the region to develop,” Sounthone remembers, without believing a word of it. This lack of political will no longer cuts it in a country with old-fashioned agriculture and faltering economic development. “Before, we didn’t have a lot of money, but we could sell coffee and harvest a bit of rice“, states Sounthone. “Today, we have become strangers in our own land” he adds.
Learn more about Children of the Mekong’s work in Laos on www.childrenofthemekong.org