The sea of nodding pink lotus extends into a misty horizon. Fishermen and women catch tiny fish in hand nets, while others herd ducks in the open water. Some net the quarrelsome crabs recently identified as being unique to this wetland. Rice fields hem the wetlands, heads stooped with ripening grain. A hunter in baggy cutoffs passes with a home made rifle, looking up at the trees in the hope of bagging some flying protein. The rural world in an urban confined space.
I wondered what this small piece of paradise would look like covered with the promised Chinese-built factories and houses.
The seemingly doomed 20 square kilometers of That Luang wetlands, that embrace Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, are a source of joy for the eye and for the belly. Even the Buddha gets a cut of the action, as women gather lotus buds to sell at the markets for offerings at temple ceremonies. In times of floods, the wetlands act as a reservoir, absorbing the excess waters and preventing the city from being submerged.
Areas such as this are under threat in all parts of Asia. In late October this year, Greenpeace, aided by hundreds of local villagers, blockaded a palm oil development site in Riau, Indonesia. They back-filled the eight-metre-deep canals being dug to channel water out of the peat swamp.
Just like in Indonesia, Vientiane’s wetlands provide food and generate income for the poorest of the city’s urban population. The day I visited, teenagers were collecting snails for sale and for food. The place is a haven for the poor, particularly women. Widows and divorced women without other means of support, fish here. "I was born here" one man told me. "My family has always lived here. The water is clean. Closer to the city", he said, waving his hand in the direction of the metropolis, "it is polluted and no fish live there. But here we can still catch them."
Yes, the fishermen and women knew about the plans. The swamp would be filled as far as that galvanised iron factory one said, pointing his chin to the west. Where would he go? He shrugged and looked at the water. The vast amount of pollution generated by the proposed development would kill the surviving aquatic life, overwhelming its capacity to biodegrade waste. What would that do to the livelihoods of the 38,000 people who are thought to live around the wetland’s rim?
Unlike Indonesia, protest is impossible, even if it was culturally appropriate. Individual and family punishment is still the norm for those that speak up in Laos.
It is said that the King, when he was alive, would attend the annual Ork Phansa (end of Buddhist Lent) celebrations by sailing down the Mekong to a wharf located near where the Beer Lao factory is currently situated. From there he would take a small but highly decorated pirogue to the highly revered That Luang temple for prayers. Some old Laotians can remember seeing that event, and remarked that it was a wonderful time when the marshes were full and water reflected the clouds and rich blue of the sky.
In 1995 I visited a wetlands project in South Sumatra, Indonesia. Labeled a swamp reclamation project, it supported the then President’s Soeharto’s fanatical if not deluded vision of making Indonesia self sufficient in rice-growing. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) had supported this delusion by lending more than US$200 million, most of which was filched by the nimble and creative bookkeeping of the Indonesians involved.
The swamps were converted into concentrated rows of rice fields, and hapless families were imported from Java and Bali to work the land. It was one of the worst projects I have ever seen. People’s lives were made a misery. The daily tide floated human waste to the surface where it contaminated drinking water; children died in huge numbers. The soil was acid when exposed to air, as well as saline, so nothing would grow. In despair, the valiant farmers grew orchids which they sold to nearby Singapore. The Department of Agriculture, keen to show the ADB their diligence, forced the farmers to rip the orchids out and replant the doomed rice seedlings. During later storm surges, the conversion of mangroves to rice-paddies enabled the seas to enter. It was development torture.
Recently World Vision, the Poverty Reduction Fund and World Food Program collaborated on a similar completely ill-conceived, but probably well intentioned, project in southern Laos. By filling the chain of wetlands they thought to provide poor farmers with more rice fields. What they did not understand is that the wetlands are sources of valuable protein and micronutrients. The local people had developed both a taste for the aquatic foods and well developed ways by which to maximize the haul. Filling the wetlands increased poverty and malnutrition, as fish is more expensive than rice. Selling fish had enabled landless farmers to buy rice, and rice farmers to balance their diets. Without the wetlands, malnutrition quickly set in.
Wetlands are there because of subsurface run off and geological strata that funnel water into the ponds. Vientiane simply does not have alterative drainage and infrastructure to carry that amount of water. The Mekong in 2007 rose higher than it has in many years due to typhoons in the north. Now more than at any time, Vientiane needs these wetlands to ameliorate any future flooding arising from global climate chaos. Those needing a reality check should look at the photos of Vientiane in 1967, when flood waters engulfed the famous Morning Market.