In early 2007, as a small number of highly placed members of the
Lao Communist Party's (ruling) Politburo stated to the press that they
would like to see an absolute end to logging inside the country's
conservation areas. Although politely stated, this was a call for a
reversal of the government's current policy, which includes actively
logging, farming and encouraging industrial plantations inside Laos's
"National Biodiversity Conservation Areas" (NBCA).
However, the reason for this new concern (explicitly stated at the
sequence of press conferences covered by the government-owned press)
was not conservation as such. It seems that the deforestation of Phou
Khao Kuay NBCA has been so severe that it is (already) curtailing the
hydrological cycle in the area, resulting in lower than expected
levels of water in the park's three power dams.
Permanently lower "normal" levels have reduced the actual (and
projected) electricity generated, not only reducing profits, but
making the payments on the debt incurred by building the dam all the
more onerous. Thus, in a country where the postwar economy relied
utterly on timber exports, the call for forest conservation comes from
within the government, in the name of hydropower and state finances.
The irony was not intentional. Whether the trees stand or fall,
their purpose is merely measured in dollars.
At roughly the same time, another argument to save the woods for
the sake of economics rather than altruism was published by the U.N.'s
Juth Pakai (an English-language journal, despite the name). In his
article "Ecotourism as an Alternative to Upland Rubber Cultivation in
the Nam Ha Protected Area, Luang Namtha" (Juth Pakai, Issue 8, April
2007), Steven Schipani points out that by 2005 the Lao government had
approved the clearance of 4,580 hectares of forest within a single
NBCA for the purpose of planting rubber. Apparently pleased with the
results, another 3,000 hectares were then slated for destruction in
Schipani sums up the figures for the money generated by rubber
trees, contrasts them to the present and future earnings projected for
the eco-tourism industry, and then asks the obvious question.
Already, he points out, one very popular and profitable eco-tourism
route in Meung Sing had to close down after the woods were slashed,
burned, and replaced with rubber seedlings; again, all of this
concerned land inside a NBCA. He reports that other eco-tourism
operations are having to re-route their tours again and again to find
the last remaining areas of intact forest, as plantations and farmland
expand. I have heard anecdotal evidence of this from "trekking"
companies as well.
In the politest terms possible, Schipani points out that these
plantations contradict the Lao Prime Minister's Decree (#164, 1993)
that defines what an NBCA was supposed to be in the first place. Of
course, this doesn't mean that they're illegal; as in any other
country, whatever the government decides to do is the law.
The economic arguments, unfortunately, are spurious. The
dissenting officials may be right that, in the long term, the hydro
dams will make more money than logging, and Schipani may be right that
eco-tourism will generate more revenue than low-grade rubber.
However, what is definitive is that cutting down the trees today puts
money into somebody's pockets tomorrow; the short term interest of
those who stand to benefit from making "the wrong" decision blots out
all other considerations.
As a standard practice, poineered by ADB loans, the paving of the
roads that were to make Laos into an "economic corridor" for China has
been accomplished by granting the right to fell timber to the
construction companies. Everywhere the roads reached, the trees
In the current phase, more and more forest is simply incinerated
where it stands. In the last months before the start of 2007's
monsoon, a race was on to burn down as much forest as possible in the
North of Laos and Thailand, to "get it done" before the timber got
wet. I have personally seen several trees with trunks more than a
metre in diameter, and more than five metres tall, that were simply
put to the torch in the field (rather than even being carted off to be
sold) as the haste was so great to clear the land.
This kind of waste is beyond the logic of capitalism: it was
driven by the annual targets to be met as part of implementing the
U.N.'s "Development Goals" for the year 2020. As the official press
constantly reminds us, all of the land "clearances" (sometimes also
removing communities of people, along with the trees) fit into this
nationwide plan to "end poverty", developed with the expertise of
countless U.N. advisors. Provincial and national authorities designate
forest as "unused" land, and there is a special annual tax to
penalize landowners whose property remains "unused"; after several
successive years of in penalty, the government will confiscate the
land. Private land ownership itself is of a relatively recent vintage
in these areas, with various government schemes in the provinces
"commodifying" land, following the lead of the (World Bank and
Australian funded) "land titling" program. Following the revolution,
private land ownership did
not exist in rural Laos. Thus external forces have made intact forest
a liability for villagers. Everyone was in a hurry to destroy the very
sources of foraged food, firewood and wild game that they rely on.
Of course, most of the land cleared had long since had the
"expensive" trees removed piecemeal prior to the incineration, but
what I was to witness, as I traversed the far North on bicycle, was
one hillside after another scorched black, sometimes with one or two
ashen trunks still looming twenty metres above the soil.
The smoke generated was of such a great magnitude that all flights
from Vientiane to the Lao North-West (viz., Huay Xay) were cancelled
for roughly two months, and even tourist flights to Luang Phabang
became unreliable. The Bangkok Post reported that some of the
airports in adjacent areas of Northern Thailand took a "scientific"
approach, and had their firemen shoot their water cannons into the
air, as if to scrub it clear.
American maize has only been planted in the northern provinces of
Xaiñabouli and Bokeo for four years, but it is already their number
one crop and main (legal) export, as timber supplies decline. These
two provinces are home to what is likely the last population of wild
elephants of any size in South-East Asia, allowing the beasts to roam
between the remote Thai province of Nan and the eastern extremities of
Burma's Shan State. The only thing that had protected them,
previously, was the inaccessibility and poverty of the area.
To draw attention to the crucial need to protect their habitat,
two French ecologists (and entrepreneurs) organized a kind of elephant
exhibition and parade in Hong Sa in early 2007. Hong Sa is a Lao town
central to the scraps of elephant habitat described, with its own
population of out-of-work domesticated elephants, formerly employed to
The "Elephant Caravan" was a success, but the theory that tourists
can save the elephants was quickly proved false. Almost simultaneous
with the event, the Lao government began its announcements that a
number of farmers would have to be relocated off of their land in the
selfsame Hong Sa district, as it would now be home to a brand new,
private sector, coal-burning power plant. The emphasis in the
official press was on the investors' agreement to pave new roads and
build new water systems for the town (expected to expand rapidly, and,
yes, "end poverty"), in exchange for the land concession. The latter
developments will actually be far more damaging to the elephants'
prospects for survival than the smoke in the air. It won't just burn
coal, it will burn low grade lignite, imported over the border from
Thailand. It will burn the coal that is so dirty that even Thailand's
laughable environmental regulations discourage its use within their
The example of "development" next door is Thailand's Issan Plateau.
The vast majority of the people of Issan are ethnically Lao; their
spoken language is Lao, although they're educated in reading and
writing Thai. The principle difference between the two is that Issan
is where the Americans built airports to load the bombs onto
aeroplanes, and Laos is where the pilots dropped them, resulting in
massive destruction over 35 years ago, and an economic disparity that
A professor of environmental science on the Issan Plateau quoted an
estimate to me that they're now at "less than 2%" forest cover. Based
on my direct experience, I would both affirm that figure, and propose
it as a reasonable estimate for the future of Laos. In principle, the
Lao government's program is 100% deforestation, but the official press
argues that the government is actually increasing the percentage of
forest cover. The trick is very simply defining "forest" as "trees of
any kind". I think I need not digress to demonstrate that plantations
of (non-indigenous) crops such as rubber and papayas do not
constitute forest --certainly not from an elephant's perspective.
A comparative glance at what happened over the past 50 years on
the Issan, and what is happening presently in Laos rapidly
demonstrates how irrelevant the categories of "Communist" and
"Capitalist" are to the ecological crisis of our times. I have
personally seen men in tribal regalia strapping on the backpack of
chemical pesticide, and walking 0barefoot into the fields to lay down
a paint-like layer of sticky poison on their crops for the first time.
Thus ends a thousand years of organic agriculture. On a very
profound level, it is impossible for them to perceive any of this as a
problem; it all fits neatly into the simple ideology of "catching up
It is impossible for me to blame the Lao government for the
situation that is now unfolding. Looking down the Mekong, I cannot
see any advantage in the U.N.-installed corruptocracy that now rules
Cambodia; nor can I imagine that a thinly veiled military despotism
such as rules Thailand (now as ever) would be preferable. Comparisons
to Laos's other neighbours (China, Burma and Vietnam) are even more
flattering to the tiny, Communist government here --and that is indeed
why the U.N.D.P. is so eager to stuff money into their pockets. The
strange virtues of the Lao government are summed up in U.N. parlance
as a "high capacity" to "effectively absorb aid"; which is to say, if
you give them money, it doesn't just disappear.
It is under the aegis of the U.N.D.P. and an array of other U.N.
organizations that the current regimen of "development" is both
financed and planned. In the name of "eradicating poverty" they are
in fact eradicating the wild.
The U.N.'s influence here is not only broad but deep. I have
asked almost every Lao government official that I have met if they
believe that sugar cane plantations have ended poverty elsewhere.
What do I mean? Well, in Haiti they already have 300 years of
experience growing this stuff; the government and development agencies
are all backing sugar cane to "end poverty" in Laos, but has it ended
poverty there, or anywhere? It would be difficult to exaggerate how
wildly alien and unwanted this line of thinking really is to officials
here; there is no historical or comparative framework in their
approach to "development", nor is one proposed or encouraged in any
U.N. document I've seen for Laos. It is simply assumed that rubber,
sugar cane, coffee, etc., can and will end poverty because the U.N.
says so. In the long list of countries already farming these crops,
often as a result of colonialism, they have not eliminated poverty but
have generally perpetuated conditions resembling slavery. That
history is both unknown and disregarded as irrelevant; the current
experiment is supposed to be unprecedented, precisely because it's
being conducted under the U.N.'s humanitarian auspice rather than
under colonial rule.
Will that magical blue flag prevent rubber and sugar cropping from
recreating the stark inequality (between those who own the land and
those who work on it) that has been seen in every other plantation
society since the 17th century?
Perhaps the most widely read critique of the U.N.D.P. in Laos was
offered by one of their own employees in 1997, and caused a brief
sensation in Vientiane. Berlinski's "The Laos Logos", published in
the National Review, was loaded with personal anecdotes and
observations of hypocrisies great and small, but I fundamentally
disagree its direction. Her central complaint seems to be that these
U.N. organizations are not effective enough in achieving what are
conceded to be laudable goals. To illustrate this, Berlinksi uses a
lot of social statistics that seem frightening if taken out of
context, contrasted with the unseemly opulence of the U.N.'s own
employees in the midst of squalor. In fact, the improvement in such
social statistics utterly vindicates the U.N.D.P.'s investment from
the limited, liberal perspective typified by editorials so frequently
found in the Guardian. Between 1995 and 2005, life expectancy was
extended by fully 10 years, and the number of homes with electricity
more than doubled, from 25% to 57%, concomitant with a leap in the
percentage of the population considered "urban" residents, from 17% to
The entire census does demonstrate that the U.N. is getting its
money's worth: it is funding the industrialization of Laos, and
getting exactly what it paid for. An urban proletariat replaces a
bucolic society of hunters and gatherers, while indigenous,
subsistence agriculture is replaced with European, industrial methods.
The question that neither Berlinski nor the Guardian seem to be
asking is whether or not that goal is really so laudable --or if it is
not rather reproducing the Dickensian ghetto on the banks of the
The U.N.'s model of "economic development" treats poverty as a
social problem that can be solved by the liquidation of "natural
resources" to leverage industrialization through foreign investment.
This premise will never be challenged by any government, as it is
always in the interest of state power to assert that the wild is their
property --viz., that the exploitation of nature is their prerogative,
notwithstanding what human or animal populations may obstruct their
access to those "resources". Every altruistic pretense of the old
revolutionaries, from South Africa to India, has collapsed upon this
simple point of the bureaucrat's self-interest.
The U.N.D.P.'s "end of poverty" is, in fact, the creation of new
poverty, in precisely the mode that Westerners ought to recall from
their own industrial revolution. In summing up the statistics, the
ADB's 2001 Lao report has a surprisingly blunt statement that
virtually all new wealth in the prior decade accrued to the new elite,
rather than improving the condition of the poor (whose real numbers
are rising); that should surprise no-one.
This is deforestation in practice: people who had neither known
wealth nor poverty before are, increasingly, subsumed into an
unfamiliar system of exploitation, as the natural resources they had
formerly relied upon are appropriated to make someone else a fortune.
Chris Lyttleton's 2004 report (Watermelons, Bars and Trucks...) gives a
vivid picture of this process, which he terms the "proletarianization"
and "commodification" of the indigenous population. With the fall of
the forest, the rise of mass-employment in garment factories in the
cities coincides; foreign investment ensures that both the clothes and
the profits leave the country. Need I say more?
Poverty is not comparable to some accidental fire that can be
"stamped out", as the U.N. constantly suggests. Poverty is the
foundation of this world's wealth; the two are reciprocal, and the
rich create poverty just as surely as the peasant create the
landowners' riches. Development is creating more wealth here, and
also more poverty. It is impossible to believe that the wetback
labourers who will working on the industrial plantations of rubber and
sugar cane in the Laos of the future will be "not poor" in comparison
to the intact tribal societies living on the cusp of the last forests
here today. Yet this is the basic premise of "development" itself,
and the mainstream press seems eager to misrepresent this as a very
hallowed cause --as a charity for all the world to support.
Eisel Mazard, a scholar of the Pali language (Phasa Pali / Phasa Tham)
see his website at http://www.pali.pratyeka.org/ He was working with starving people in remote villages in Bokeo province, and teaching English to agriculture technicians. He does not work in Laos anymore, he's currently looking to volunteer with refugees on the Thai-Burmese border.