Last year the wildly successful Elephant festival in Hongsa attracted about 10,000 visitors. About 2,000 of those were foreigners, some leaning heavily on sticks, others elegantly attired, others dreadlocked and ganja inspired.
They had made, in white fella terms, an epic journey. It’s not like Hongsa is just around the corner. Some, mainly the embassy set, had flown in by chopper, while others had taken the seven-hour very slow and very uncomfortable boat trip from Luang Prabang and endured another two hours riding sideways in a local truck with compromised suspension. Others opted for a three-day motorcycle ride and sore knees.
But as the weekend and program rolled on, all inhibitions were lost in the bonhomie of watching these wonderful creatures go through their paces, bowing and sweeping their trunks with diva like skill. They were watched, applauded, photographed and simply adored. Their mahouts, steering the great beasts by digging into the soft spot behind their ears, were full of pride, smiling quietly as they took the accolades and appeared on thousands of digital screens.
Behind the scenes wide hipped women in traditional skirts took money from thirsty visitors, sticking wads of kip into capacious pockets. Family members, brought in like the Fifth Cavalry, also took home a pile. It was the sort of tourism that gains international plaudits. Money and gains directed into the hands of the villagers. The people put on a show and pulled it off with aplomb. They and the elephants should become an annual must-see for visitors to Lao.
Sayaboury province which cuddles like spoons into Thailand, is Lao’s major repository of domesticated elephants. It thus maintains the major gene pool needed for the survival of the species, which is dwindling at a rate which should be cause for concern.
On the big day of the elephant baci when the elephants are reunited with any stray souls that have nicked off to the forest for quick smoke, the senior Lao government officials watching and clapping could not have helped noticing what a cha cha event this was.
So why did they persist with the go ahead to a lignite mine and power station to be built only 5km from the village that hosted the festival?
To mine lignite these days is like admitting to smoking five packs a day. It’s a dirty, shitty energy source, so heavy in sulphur, carbon and water that the only effective way of coaxing energy from it is at the mine mouth; otherwise the mere cost of transport makes it uneconomic.
Residents of Vientiane are aghast. Eco tourism officials are sputtering.
The original power station, was far too uneconomic, a mere 684 watts. So the scale has been pumped up to twice its earlier dimension. It promises 1,650 watts if only BANPU, the Thai company pushing the mine can find a partner. It is thought that the state electricity authority EGAT, or its investment arm EGCO, will come to the party along with the Government of Lao.
Residents of the nearby mahout villages are uncertain if they will be required to move. Relocation due to construction is one thing, as it comes usually with some form of economic package and assistance; but involuntary relocation due to fallout and chemically induced devastation of elephant fodder growing plants is another.
Meanwhile, Sayaboury is being unsustainably logged and food sources for jumbos are dwindling. Acid rain and excessive sulphur dioxide emissions are an additional burden to the people and elephant herds of Sayaboury.
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