For the people in the tiny Lao villages that dot the mountains in the country’s north-western border, the banana looked like a saviour. As demand for bananas in neighbouring China reached new heights, Chinese investors began crossing the border to invest in banana plantations in Laos’ impoverished Northern provinces. From 2002, when Laos produced less than 90,000 tonnes of bananas, production increased to more than 400,000 tonnes by 2013. For a time, the deal was favourable for everyone involved. Local Laotian landowners received large amounts of cash in exchange for renting out their land, local labourers had work and the Chinese gained a new source for bananas and the profits they brought. However, it was not long before the unexpected side effects began to outweigh the economic advantages of Chinese investment in Laos.
Although bananas are easy to grow in South and Central Laos, the climate and mountainous landscape in the provinces of Bokeo, Luang, Namtha, Phongsaly and Sayaboury are not naturally conducive to banana production. Moreover, the Chinese investors’ preference for the Cavendish variety has led banana plantations owners to turn to a cornucopia of pesticides, herbicides, rodenticides and fertilizer in order to protect their plants. Unlike the native “kuay nam”, commercial types of bananas from foreign countries require fertilizers and chemical substances to ward off the 28 diseases and 19 insects that attack banana plants in the north. Whilst effective in boosting production, the chemicals have had damaging social and environmental consequences for the plantation workers and surrounding villages.
Low pay and dangerous working conditions
Plantation labourers report that they are forced to work in unsanitary conditions around dangerous chemicals without proper protective gear. Workers receive a low wage of about 50,000 kip (U.S. $6.25) a day and do not get paid if they are sick. They are housed in dirty company-provided housing, often with poor sanitation.
According to an agricultural official from Bokeo province, “the workers do not have uniforms when herbicide is being sprayed in the plantation”. Those who have the most exposure to the chemicals suffer from headaches and dizziness. Some develop open sores on their arms and have problems with skin disease.
Photo: Health concern: a female plantation worker with
her sick child at Ton Pheung hospital. Photo by Guillaume Payen
Plantation owners also prevent Lao labourers from working on the plantations for longer than three years because the owners fear the workers will die there. An official from the provincial labour and social welfare ministry confirmed that a 59-year-old labourer died in the Bokeo provincial hospital last year “due to working in the banana plantation in Pha Oudom, but the Chinese employer only paid 500,000 kip (U.S. $62) to help with his funeral.” In February, Chinese guards forced Lao workers in northern Oudomxay province to labour in banana plantations contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Fifty local labourers were reported working under Chinese overseers armed with automatic rifles, despite laws prohibiting gun use outside of the police and the army.
Wider impacts on the Northern provinces
The use of dangerous chemicals is also impacting on villages surrounding the Chinese plantations who source their water from the same river. Concern over pollution of the water supply led to measures in late 2015 requiring the Chinese to use organic fertilizers. To date, the practice is not being followed. “The plantation owners do not manage the waste, and villagers are not happy with it because during the rainy season the chemical substances will be swept into the stream so no one dares to take a bath in there,” a resident of That and Phokham villages in Luang Namthan province told news agency Radio Free Asia.
In Simeuang-ngam village the runoff from a banana plantation was blamed for killing 900 kg of fish. Instead of working to prevent the contamination, however, the Chinese investors backing the plantation found it cheaper to pay compensation to those affected.
Photo: Chemical creation: workers plunge bananas into a formalin bath to slow the maturation process. Photo by Guillaume Payen
Header photo: Labouring: workers on a plantation in Bokeo province, northern Laos. Photo by Guillaume Payen