Don Chan: once were tomatoes

[Note that due to the sensitivity of the issue and the extraordinary ramping up of security prior to ASEM9, no real names have been used.]

Asian and European leaders will soon gather in Vientiane as the Lao government hosts the Asia European Heads of Government Meeting (ASEM9) set for early November. This and the other high level meetings that precede it have involved a flurry of construction activity. None is more shrouded in secrecy than the acquisition of land on Don Chan,  a sand spit in central Vientiane, where some leaders will be housed in the recently constructed luxury villas. While leaders talk about issues facing the troubled globe, among them food security, they may not be aware that the buildings in which they are housed put at risk the food security of the city in which they are meeting.

Until three years ago one could cycle, walk or drive to the ‘hairy’ water tower on Route Thadeua  in Vientiane, Lao’s capital.  Dodging around the soaring mass of concrete that from some angles, make the tower resemble a lighthouse, one could cross a very old but still functional iron bridge, to what is known as Don Chan, to buy the week’s vegetables.

Now the bridge has gone and where there were expanses of green, the visitor is confronted by an assortment of housing estates.

The iron bridge which some argue was built by the French colonial government in 1936, was an elegant structure and would have had immense heritage and tourist value. No sign of it remains. Even the cement footings have been destroyed. Back in Jakarta, a Lao friend expressed shock when I told him of the bridge’s demise. “Oh no, that is terrible. I would cross there when I was a kid to walk and buy vegetables.”

He might have bought them from Pham’s family.

“When I was a boy I used to jump from the old bridge into the water. It was a great time. When the Don Chang hotel was built the channel dried up. Now the bridge has gone. Our houses and farmlands (are now)  gone,”  said English speaking Pham who was born in his family house on Don Chan.

Pham suggested that the French Embassy had expressed some concern at its destruction, but the French Embassy did not reply to requests for comment.

Madame Noua, Pham’s mother,  nodded and said “It was very old. (built) Before I was born.”

At the northern end of the spit is a semi-completed huge brown hotel the same colour as the dust which is all that left of the Don Chan farming community. The development, by Lao’s Krittaphong group in joint venture with China CAMC Engineering, is defended as necessary for Lao’s tourism potential. Their press statements say that Chinese workers will be brought in to both train Lao staff in hospitality and to get the hotel on a profitable footing.  Meaning the Lao lose the land, and the income from the produce, but also the potential of work. The hotel is part of the huge New World Development that, the company says, will bring Hong Kong to the banks of the Mekong.

The locals are less than impressed. “ This is Lao not Hong Kong. We want our capital to be charming like it was. Now it is losing its beauty.” Souphtasone  responded as she sat drinking her thick Lao coffee in a nearby cafe.

In deference to the international guests, the kilometre long hoarding showing glittering energy consuming towers and Surfers Paradise lookalike marina development, had been dismantled. As I left Vientiane, soldiers in camouflage were standing at 50 meter intervals under the few remaining trees, automatic weapons at the ready. So this is what it means to be modern.

The ten hectare island (Don) used to be one large market garden. The closer one got, the stronger the scent of ripe tomatoes and wet earth. The people of Don Chan supplied fresh vegetables to Vientiane and in particular, to the twice weekly organic market in Vientiane, intensely popular with local Lao who place great store on what they perceive to be healthy foods. Don Chan was an essential part of Vientiane’s food security, especially for the less well off who shop at local markets.

The bright green of lettuce, beans, tomatoes and a plethora of exotic local vegetables were tended diligently by around 300 families who lived there, carrying water from the Mekong and taking the produce to markets by hand cart or motorbike.

It was also popular with travellers looking for a break from temple tours or seeking authenticity. “I was here a few years ago and I was really impressed by Don Chan. Few cities can boast they grow food right in the city,” said Father Bennet, a Jesuit environmental expert, and regular visitor to the Mekong region.

Don Chan used to be a sand spit or island, depending on the vagaries of the Mekong. The river caused the island to shape shift due to its heavy seasonal silt deposits.  In 2002 land was acquired under what was said to be shady circumstances, to build the Don Chan Palace, a 14 story hotel, quickly  labelled the ‘Don Chan Phallus’ by local wits, due to its reputation for a thriving sex trade.

The excuse used then to grab the land with no compensation was the one used now. The 2004 ASEAN meeting held in Vientiane, the people were told, needed five star tourist facilities for the delegates. The politics of socialism so ardently taught to everyone from school kids to artists, do not apply to neighbouring delegates it seems.

The tacky hotel was never a success, enjoying only 20% occupancy. Most travellers to Vientiane prefer the atmospheric cheaper guest houses or the far more salubrious hotels of the central city. But the Don Chan did succeed in changing the river’s micro-hydrology.

Three Don Chan farmers told me that around 15% of the island’s arable land slumped into the main body of the Mekong due to changed flow patterns.

Virtually all of the residents of Don Chan have been moved 26 kms out of town to an arid infertile clay bed with no water.

Madame Noua fought back tears as she said. “Farming is all I know. It’s what I have done all my life. I am 58 years old now. What can I do in that place? I have no water, the soil is bad. How do I earn money to feed my family.”

“The press reported that we were going to be moved 18 km out of town but it’s further.”  To demonstrate, Pham brings out his mobile phone, and using the GPS function and Google Earth visits the site. It is 26 kms and one can see clearly the pale clay that has been exposed by earthworks to flatten the resettlement site.

“They also said that we had all volunteered. That is not true. We did not want to leave, but we were pressured.  Each family had visits from the government so we could not take collective action. In the end we agreed if the compensation and relocation site were suitable. The old nai ban (village head) fought  (for the right) to stay, but he was sacked and relocated. The new village head would not allow us to send letter of protest or to complain. We think he had many powerful connections. He agreed with the government.”

Mr. Kham agreed, saying “ My sister was given a document which said that she would be moved 18 kms and given 800 square meters. Both were wrong. She got less land and it’s far. The conditions are bad.”

The Don Chan Palace which is being refurbished for ASEM is being overshadowed by the giant Landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel. It looms like Godzilla over the line of houses and commercial buildings that line Rue Thadeua, the major arterial that follows the Mekong. Its size is vastly out of place in this small low rise city.

The late Charles Alton, an agricultural economist, and, before he died in mid 2012, a long time resident of Lao, said about the Don Chan development, “ The thing of it is, to anyone watching, this is a really great example of government corruption and how to waste a great resource. In the long term they are cutting their own throats.”

Globally cities are trying to achieve what Vientiane gave away, that is the capacity to grow food locally, in order to reduce carbon from transport and increase nutrient value through shortening the distance between grower and consumer. Increasingly food producers and consumers are calculating food miles to reduce both the expense and the carbon foot print of travelling food.

The island, once a verdant oasis, is now covered in elite houses in which heads of government will stay for the two days of the ASEM9 Meetings.  The houses are reputed to be on the market for a cool million dollars and more.  Attempts to gain comments from CAMCE and Krittaphone were problematic as Chinese was the only available language.

Vientiane’s senior officials claim to be aspiring to make Vientiane a modern city. They have it appears taken a Soviet style bricks and concrete definition of modern.  On every visit, the city feels noticeably hotter as the trees fall and the concrete expands. It seems that every land grab is defended by the mantra of poverty eradication. But there is lots of evidence that the Lao Government’s programs are making things a lot worse for the people.

“There are many questions about the compensation package,” an agricultural consultant with a Swiss development project and who declined identification said. “The process was in no ways transparent. There were very few meetings held to discuss the issue. In essence the people were given 12 months to agree pack up and get out. Most did not understand the process of terms of the compensation.”

Pham agreed. “We were not paid for our land. Many of us did not have titles as we had always lived there. We did not need titles as we knew each other’s land. They only gave us money for our house and for the value of the crops for 10 years.”

But even that was hard to understand.  “They paid more for concrete house than wooden house. They said that a wooden house can be built again with old wood. But the wood is sometimes damaged… “or stolen?”  I ventured. Pham smiled.. “So you know. Yes, people steal.”

He produced a picture of his house. The bottom was constructed from cement render and the top made of timber planking. “They pay us USD 13,000 for our house.” He showed another picture of an almost identical house.” This family got USD 40,000 as they know the police.”

Who was they?

“ We don’t know. Different people come each time. But it was government. We know the new houses are being built by Chinese, but they did not come and talk to us.”

“We calculated the annual value of the vegetables to be 50-60 million kip per year. But they paid us only the value of 30 million. Then they discounted the amount by 12 %. They did not say why.”

The agricultural consultant suggested that this was an administrative tax, but that was not explained to the people, nor was it universally applied.  He explained that the villagers involved in the organic gardening project got some compensation for their land after it was surveyed, but they had assistance from the Lao Bar Association. Despite their intervention, there remain many questions about the veracity of the promises and the fairness and equity of the compensation..

If each house is sold for USD 1 million and the land it occupies cost the developer say USD30,000 that represents a decent profit.

Agricultural experts writing on the Lao list-serve LaoFAB, underlined the issues of concern are the loss of organic farming skills and practice, and with it, the loss of food security for the capital. I was told by Pham and his mother that farmers had used their compensation money to buy more suitable land.

“They have to start from the beginning again. Land is now so expensive as there has been a lot of speculation. Many of them are already in debt. Before they had no debt and made good money. Now they are poor, ” the project consultant said.

Google Earth showed an adjacent area significantly larger than the resettlement area that is being currently excavated for a Chinese owned factory. The farmers could only say that it was called the Vista factory. More than that, they did not know.

Pham said that some men have looked for work as day labour, but the public transport is not reliable and they have to walk 3 kms to the main road. If they have motor bikes, day wages are consumed by fuel costs.

“There are many new construction sites but they are Chinese and use Chinese workers, not Lao. We have to go a long way to find work,”  the older Mr Kham said at a separate meeting.

“Maybe we were moved there to make cheap labour for the Chinese?” Kham suggests with a wry smile.

Pham’s GPS image of the Hua Siang resettlement site showed other settlements nearby. “Those are the people that were pushed off That Luang Marsh, so Chinese can build. “ Pham explained.  It appears as though the resettlement site is being used as an ‘out of sight out of mind’ place for those displaced by land grabs.

At a recent conference where the PM made his statement about Vientiane becoming a modern city, the officials also discussed corruption.

Wiping out  “undesirable conduct such as autocracy, extravagance, and corruption,” government spokesperson Bounpheng Mounphosay was reported as saying was a major government objective . Yet in the case of Don Chan all of those seemed to have come into play.

The residents were told they could not refuse. They were given less than a year to plan their departure. The previous village head who fought for villagers rights, sacked and relocated. He was replaced by someone far more supine and who point blank refused to sign or convey and letters of protest or even letters seeking clarification of the terms of compensation.

When asked why he didn’t protest, Pham said he was “afraid of being arrested and having to live on monkey food” (bananas). Mr. Kham nodded in agreement. The process was riddled with lack of transparency, and rent seeking. Those with Party or government connections were given larger settlements for their homes and allowed to settle closer to the city.

So what do you do now ? “ I am bored”  Noua said. “I do nothing. Many others are living on compensation money, but when it runs out….?”  she shrugged.

“We had to pay to have electricity connected. The brokers charge us 500,000 kip for the connection as they think we have lots of compensation money. On Don Chan we could dig toilet pits ourselves. The ground was soft. Now to make a toilet we have to get a machine. And we have to pay another 500,000 kip. But we have no money coming in. Soon all our money (will be ) finished,”  she looks dejected.