Melody Kemp lives in Jakarta. Her previous piece for Webdiary was Take back those words. [Some minor amendments to the text made since first publication.]
by Melody Kemp
This week the World Wildlife Fund for Nature focused its concern on five Asian rivers, all of them icons. Issues related to environment and conservation are not merely limited to China and Indonesia, but to the increasingly popular tourist destinations of Indo China. Visitors hoping to see how the world looked before mass tourism packaged and sanitized it flock in particular to Lao, home to some of the regions last wild herds of significant endangered species. However the fight to save Lao's environment is being quietly lost and the disappearance of a significant local environmental advocate, may have just drawn the line in the forest.
The kidnapping and disappearance of the co owner of Lao’s best known eco lodge, The Boat Landing, has raised many questions about Lao’s ability to deal with broad scale tourism, and even more, its ability to conserve the environment.
Two months ago Sompawn Khantisouk, co owner of the internationally acclaimed eco-lodge was, according to eyewitnesses, bundled into a car by men in green uniforms and driven off. His motor bike was found abandoned by the road. It was said that he been called to the police station to talk about an arson attempt on his home when he received a call on his mobile phone telling him to stop. It was then that the car pulled up and he was taken away.
His family have not been allowed to see the phone records which might indicate who called Sompawn (known popularly as Pawn) prior to his kidnapping.
While news of his disappearance has not surfaced in the local media, Pawn’s disappearance is a very public secret and is discussed cautiously in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. People see it as a possible return to hard line policies of the past.
Sompawn, a handsome man in his early 30’s, had been working with local villagers tempted by destructive subcontracted plantation development which had already encroached on national protected areas. Last year, the Boat Landing was inundated when heavy rains slid off deforested hillsides around Luang Namtha and carried detritus down into the upstream dam. The Boat Landing, which sits right on the Nam Tha river, found itself submerged in swirling waters as the guests made a hasty getaway.
There is evidence that forced evictions and deforestation in protected areas to make way for Chinese projects has caused severe hardship amongst ethnic minorities. Frank evidence of malnutrition and chronic illness is emerging. Some of this is documented by young travelers whose weblogs describe scenes of deprivation, misery and of fear. The travelers, expecting forest treks, are instead confronted with the bare hillsides, and in their weblogs describe the nervous attempts of guides to explain why National Protected Areas are being denuded and replaced with rubber. This on-line gossip has the potential to kill Lao’s nascent tourist industry, which until recently was labeled green. Last week the Government's mouthpiece, the Vientiane Times, reported that a huge Chinese owned casino and several luxury hotels were soon to open in Luang Namtha. There is no doubt that they will service rich Chinese tourists who cannot gamble on their side of the border, and who seek sex workers, as many of the Lao women pushed off their land have become.
Lao's protected areas are famous for many varieties of wildlife. Many, like the snow leopard, are emblematic of the extinction caused by rampant development, particularly that of plantations, which can be considered ‘green deserts’ where native species cannot survive.
The Boat Landing, winner of international awards for sustainable tourism, has been an increasing destination for international travelers drawn to the region’s natural beauty and cultural diversity. It is this very success that some say was behind Pawn’s disappearance. The Lao government, remembering the war and the ongoing insurgency, is known to be highly secretive and nervous about the role that international visitors play. As one long term observer said, “they cannot really believe that foreigners like to come here to either work on aid projects or to travel. They see conspiracies everywhere.” While wanting the foreign revenue from tourism, they are nervous of the security implications of having so many foreigners around. It is said that hiring of a military helicopter to take a well-heeled Japanese couple on a flying tour might have been the tipping point event that led to Pawn’s disappearance. The Japanese are major contributor's to Lao's development budget.
Lao's determination to enrich itself by the development of massive hydropower and mining schemes threatens many of the pristine areas left in the country. Many of these regions like the Nakai-Nam Theun area are home to rare species and are some of the most precious ecosystems left in Asia. Tourists are drawn to those places, hoping to catch views of wild tigers, elephants and other species only found in these regions. But there is an increasing mismatch between tourist potential and the big environmentally destructive projects. Small scale eco projects have managed to distribute funds to small rural communities, while large scale development has concentrated wealth in the hands of the urban elite. While fancy cars are multiplying in Vientiane, many rural poor are left without land to grow rice.
Sompawn’s disappearance reminds us that the eco advocates are also an endangered species in places like Lao.