Laos has ‘mortgaged’ future at expense of people, U.N. expert says

Government policies have paved the way for investments in mining and agriculture but have placed greater pressure on land and impoverished communities, said the U.N.

The Laos government has prioritised big infrastructure projects including dams, railways lines and mines that have benefited few people and uprooted the poor from their land, said the top independent expert on poverty at the United Nations.

While the Southeast Asian nation has seen “remarkable” economic growth over the last two decades, a focus on foreign investment-led infrastructure projects has created too few jobs, and generated large debt repayment obligations, he said.

“The policies pursued so far are very one-sided, and many of them have exacerbated, rather than improved the condition of the people,” said Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, after a visit to Laos.

“They have generated a large number of landless people who have endured forced resettlement, inadequate compensation and highly problematic livelihoods after they have been evicted,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Bangkok.

The landlocked country is experiencing rapid transformation as it lures foreign investment to tap its natural resources, and build much-needed infrastructure.

From 2006, government policies paved the way for investments in mining and agriculture, which have placed greater pressure on the land in a country where more than three-fourths of the population is engaged in agriculture.

Concessions for mining, and plantations of rubber, sugarcane and other cash crops cover about 45 percent of total land area, according to research organisation Mekong Region Land Governance.

Many, if not most, of these concessions have produced “very few returns to the national budget” and have led to “large scale dispossession” of people, according to Alston.

With most rural land untitled, land security is tenuous, and compensation is often inadequate or delayed.

While the government issued a selective moratorium on new concessions in 2012, investors continue to hold vast swathes of land that are lost to communities that farmed them, Alston said.

Alongside, the government is betting on an ambitious dam-building programme with an aim to become the “battery of Asia”.

Analysts and human rights groups called for greater scrutiny of hydropower projects in Laos after a dam that was under construction broke last July, killing at least 19 people as it swept away homes in flash flooding.

Nearly 4,000 villagers continue to live in temporary camps with little financial support and no clear idea of resettlement, said Alston, who will submit a report to authorities in June.

The government has little technical expertise in hydropower, so corporations generally have the upper hand in drafting contracts with terms that favour them, he said.

“The contracts are largely negotiated in secret, and the lack of transparency makes it impossible for even the government to get good advice – at the expense of the country,” he said.

“The full extent to which the government has mortgaged the future of the country through these contracts – the details of which are only vaguely known – will only come to light years from now.”

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