Perspectives from Laos, and mining the Conservation Estate

I’ve just returned from a few weeks in South East Asia, much of which was spent in Laos, albeit mostly on the tourist trail, and it’s a wonderful country. Much of what’s recently been in the media, as well as reading one of Robb’s recent posts regarding our government’s new policy of “stock-taking” the conservation estate in preparation for mineral extraction, has prompted some thoughts.

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I’ll dispense with the complete story of our holiday, except to say that Laos is a fantastic place. (Some photos of the whole thing may be found here.) It’s not yet quite so touristy as neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam (having to pay the US$1 going rate to the Vietnamese immigration guy at the land border just so he’d stamp my passport was a disappointing introduction to Vietnam), and Laos has only been generally open to tourists since the 1990s. There’s a project to at least double tourism over the next decade, adapting facilities in to bring in more overseas money. The place will probably change a lot in that time, and I only hope the attraction of the tourist dollar doesn’t cause any more of the country to become like Vang Vieng, which ten years ago was a tiny village but has now turned into a giant pub crawl town aimed at young English-speaking young backpackers who typically go there to get hammered.

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Laos has a devastatingly war-torn history through the last few centuries, having been hastily usurped into “French Indochina” in 1893 as part of the race between France and Britain to be first to colonise as much of the world as possible. Not long after the communists finally kicked out the French, Laos became tangled in the Vietnam war, and the USA dropped more bombs on eastern Laos between 1964 and 1973 than were dropped during the entire second world war. (Reportedly that’s about one B-52 payload being dropped every eight minutes day and night over 9 years!) To this day, Laos holds the unenvious title of being the most bombed country, anywhere, ever. It’s a sad story, especially having seen how polite and generous the people are, but on the other hand it’s good to see it’s no longer happening. The entire region is full of limestone, dotted with numerous pinnacle structures and caves. During the various wars, people frequently hid in caves, surrounding themselves with Budda statues for protection. Until relatively recently, typical life expectencies were as low as about 45, with about 25% of children dying in their first few years. With roughly 1/3 of the 260 million bombs that were dropped never having detonated, people who live in that region still suffer indiscriminately from tripping unexploded live ammunition.

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Slow boats like this are a common
sight in Laos on the Mekong River.

Our holiday didn’t involve much walking or tramping or hiking, apart from the odd three hour staged walk to a waterfall here and there. From what I saw there was a lot of potential scope for tramping around Laos, but it’s not really an angle being pushed by anyone there, as far as I can tell. I asked someone about such possibilities as we spent a couple of days floating down the Mekong River, but I had to repeat and re-phrase the question a couple of times because he didn’t understand the concept of what I was talking about. Walking around in the wilderness for recreation doesn’t make a lot of sense in a place where people already do this as part of their lives. In particular, certain nomadic people live along the banks of the Mekong River, re-locating their settlements as the months go on to wherever it’s appropriate for them to farm and grow what they need, prior to packing up and moving somewhere else so the land can re-generate.

Local people in Laos have far more to worry about than enjoying the wilderness. When you already live in it, it’s everywhere, and you have to think about day-to-day living, recognition of the wilderness as something for leisure or preservation takes a back seat. I’m sure there are parallels here with early colonisation of New Zealand. When the first people arrived 1000 years ago, massive amounts of forest were burned off to make way for humans to live. There was so much of it, after all, and New Zealand bush does tend to be impenetrable on average in its natural state. The pattern was repeated 200 years ago when European settlers arrived, fresh with new farming techniques and newly-developed technology that could be used to turn nearly all of the country’s native wetlands into valuable farm-land, giant thousand year old trees were felled all over for short term gain, birds became extinct and other birds became severely endangered as their habitat was destroyed. Ecologically it was a tremendous disaster, and I’ve often wished for the chance to see New Zealand as it might have been before humans messed it up so much, but these also established a stable economy for settlers who needed to live and sustain themselves in a new land.

Things change over time. Life becomes more comfortable, people get more luxuries and discover ways to live reasonably without spending every waking hour at work. People have leisure time, and they begin to appreciate things around them more, perhaps having reason to notice what’s around them, and see reasons to preserve and protect it rather than unsustainably suck it dry. Throughout the 20th century, New Zealanders established a culture that involved more leisure, getting outdoors and enjoying the environment of their country, whether by exploring the mountains, tramping, climbing, or just by getting out to the campgrounds or having barbecues on the beach. I suppose I’m fortunate to live in New Zealand now and not before — it’s undoubtedly a different world.

This is something that doesn’t really exist to the same extent in a place like Laos, at least as far as I can tell. Despite people having lived in Laos (and all of South East Asia) for a very long time, the history means that absolute preservation of the complete environment as it exists today isn’t necessarily at the top of the priority list. People have far more to worry about than preserving every piece of scenery, as Laos is a country that needs to attract more money to help people to improve their way of life. I guess this is where the mineral part of the story comes in, because the other major place besides tourism where Laos is searching for income happens to be mining.

Laos has minerals — it’s uncertain exactly what minerals are there, but it’s believed there’s quite a lot of mineral wealth buried underground. There aren’t many people in Laos with the skills to search for minerals, or get them out, so the present plan has been to involve large international mining companies, especially some of the big Australian mining companies, and give them a cut of the proceeds as part of the deal. The hopeful end result is that local people will be trained up, and over time the country will become more equipped to extract its minerals on its own.

Recently in New Zealand, there has been much controversy just on the mention that the government wants to look at the conservation estate to get a stock-take of what minerals exist and where they are. This is without even explicitly saying that anything will or might be mined, but the concern has been more about what went un-said, and later Official Information Act requests discovered that Gerry Brownlee (Minister for Economic Development) already knew that he wanted to look at opening parts of places like Fiordland, the Kahurangis and Paparoa national parks for mining operations. Mining companies claim this criticism is unjustified and their footprints are minimal, and to many people this will be completely true because obviously people have different opinions on what’s acceptable depending on how important they see things.

I think the outcry is a reflection of the culture I mentioned earlier that New Zealand has built over the past century, with so many people seeing their outdoor environment as a critically important part of their lives that shouldn’t be messed with. If it really were just a stock-take, I’d think it was awesome. Coming from a relatively scientific background, I see it as a great thing to be learning as much about everything as possible. Under normal circumstances, criticising the government for simply wanting to discover more about our environment would seem bizarre, but in this case I sympathise with those who were quick to jump the gun and assume the worst. It’s unlikely that clear details for people to argue over the specifics of will be released for some time, but it seems there’s good reason for concern. I’m also very concerned.

It’s strange having just returned from a place like Laos which is also considering mining of its natural resources, because in Laos my opinion about mining might as well be a polar opposite. It’s possible that the limited amount of what I saw has skewed my opinion, but it at least seems as if mining in Laos seems will have a much more definite and positive effect on the quality of life for the people who live there, as long as it’s done carefully and with consideration about where the money goes.

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Some of the 700 monks in Luang Prabang go
about the morning ritual of collecting offerings of
sticky rice from the local populace.
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