Environmental Challenges in Laos

It is difficult to not judge.  The challenges faced by people in different living situations often dictate the level of commitment they have to causes bigger themselves.  According the BBC Laos is one of the poorest states in Asia (Click Here).  On top of this, the land locked country has been slow to recover from the impacts of war as it was one of the most bombed countries in history (Click Here).  Natural resources have been the only thing it has to sell.

Dams

The Mekong River has been one of the largest and most productive rivers in the world (Click Here).  However it is under threat from a variety of sources.  China has built four dams already on it, and Laos has 16 minor dams and in currently building two majors dams.  These new dams will have dire impacts all life on the river. “If the remaining … proposed dams are built, they seriously jeopardize the future of the Mekong as a life-sustaining ecosystem,” According an Aljareera article (Click Here)

People often take advantage of the poor. China is a major investor in the dam projects as is Vietnam and Thailand. (Click Here) Most of the power generated by these dams will benefit countries outside Laos.  The major investors will reap the profits, as the power generated will feed Thailand, China, and Vietnam. The dam will provide some local jobs, but will the Laotian people benefit as much as the other countries?  Will the benefits of the Dam outweigh the ecological consequences?    Is it judgmental to point out that the long term consequences of building these dams are not in the long term interest of the people who think they’ll benefit from them?

Water levels in the lower Mekong are doping at record rates.  Little doubt exists that the upstream dams are causing that problem. (Source: Click here)

Tat Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary

Wildlife was hard to find in Laos. I asked our driver where to go to view birds and wildlife and he said: “Not much, Lao people hunt everything.” Said a local driver. This of course was echoed by my earlier post about the wildlife-turned-food-options I found in the morning market (Click Here).

Bears, an umbrella forest species, were not immune to the Loatian appetite.   Traditional medicine practitioners believed the bile from Asiatic Black Bears (Also known as moon bears) solved a variety of medical conditions.    The bears were captured, put into cages, and their bile harvested repeatedly until death.

Outside of Luang Prabang, the Tat Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary provides a safe home for bears recovered from this hideous existence.  (Click Here)  Even though this sanctuary was primary funded by an overseas NGO, it did provide local work and haven for these vulnerable species (IUCN red list).

Asian Black Bear recovered from wildlife trade, now in the Tat Kuang Si Sanctuary

Poverty in Laos

On our boat ride from Pak Beng to Huay Xia we talked with teacher who has been coming to Laos for the last ten years setting up education programs.  She believed things have worsened. “They have started eating cats.   They cannot bathe or use the river water to wash anymore. The Chinese are like ants.  They buy up land for banana, watermelon, and corn plantations. Locals forfeit their rights to their land for 30 years all for the price of a moped. It is horrible.  The Laotian people are so trusting and generous they don’t believe that people will wrong them in this way, but people are taking advantage of them.”

Similarly, our taxi driver said tourism this year is down. “It was much better last year and even better 10 years ago.   Many local businesses have closed.  Foreigner owned business are growing.”

Like I said, it is hard not to judge and to conclude that Laos should not doing what it is doing.  Most of these problems have to do with long term consequences and short term gain.  This is a similar problem had around the world.  However, when that short term gain puts food on the plate today, it is hard to think about next week.  Poverty often feeds desperation, and desperation is the enemy long term planning.  In Laos’s case, poverty is causing them to mortgage their ecological future.

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