Notes from a banana field

A Chinese banana plantation in Bokeo. The Chinese have long leases on gold and copper mines, as well as rubber, cassava, sugar cane, eucalyptus and banana plantations in Laos.
A Chinese banana plantation in Bokeo. The Chinese have long leases on gold and copper mines, as well as rubber, cassava, sugar cane, eucalyptus and banana plantations in Laos.

In the northern Lao province of Bokeo, it is not only the rice fields that are green at this time of year, when the lowering clouds bring cool monsoon rains drifting down the Mekong valley. Tens of square kilometres of banana plantations flank the road north of Houai Xai.

They are just one aspect of a range of recent Chinese investments in Laos – whose economy is set to grow at 8 per cent this year according to a World Bank assessment in June. The nation of less than 7 million, is leveraging its natural resources and strategic position between China, Thailand and Vietnam, to reach middle income status in four years.

Chinese investments have surged, analysts say – and are now very visible, from the sprawling Sepon gold and copper mine in Savannakhet in the south, to the rubber plantations of Luang Namtha in the north, and the shiny futuristic urban mixed use developments on billboards in Vientiane.

And in Bokeo province in the north right up on the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, are banana fields and a casino.  

The banana began coming up around two years ago, locals say. Like rubber and palm oil has elsewhere in south east Asia, they have taken over a lot of traditional rice lands, changing the landscape and the way of life.

Local farmers here are paid an annual rent of around 30,000 Baht per acre by Chinese banana investors, and a crop of bananas is taken every 5 months.

The switch from rice to bananas has triggered environmental and economic changes.

A recent paper in the journal Human Ecology reported that farmers in Laos harvest not just rice but also fish, snails, shrimp, crustaceans, and vegetables from the traditional rice ecosystem – amounting to several kilos per person per year.

In other words, rice farmers who rent their lands to commercial cash crop plantation companies, will suddenly not get enough to eat from their lands, because biodiversity will be dramatically reduced.

In one plantation, a man was spraying what turned out to be a weed killer. He said he did not have any land of his own, and was being paid the equivalent of 200 Thai Baht a day for the work. His wife and young child were with him. He was not wearing a mask; when asked, he said “It’s too hot.”

When asked what he was spraying he said he did not know, but we could go and check the empty canisters. It turned out to be Paraquat, a weed killer, which is the subject of much controversy and is being phased out in China – the world’s biggest producer - because it is so acutely toxic.

“And all this goes into the water and eventually into the Mekong,” muttered the young Lao who was helping me translate. He told the man to wear a mask, and to please keep his wife and daughter at a distance when he was spraying.

A radically different world emerges up the road, in the form of the Kings Romans casino, on a bluff overlooking the Mekong in the middle of a 103 square kilometre concession leased for 99 years by a Hong Kong based company.

The casino, open since 2009, is visible from across the river in Thailand because of the large concrete crown on its roof, which is lit up at night. A luxury hotel stands next door, and last month a brand new “Chinatown” opened behind it, offering free rent for a year for retail tenants.

A veritable city will spring up here, local Kings Romans executives told me. It would include an international language school.

There are a couple of museums, one dedicated to China’s history, the other a replica of a Tibetan monastery. The shops sell a range of items from clothes to traditional tea paraphernalia. One features boulders and smaller chunks of rock veined with jade, and a jade carver in action. Another features jars – both glass and earthen – full of tiger bone wine.

To leave nothing to the imagination, one big glass jar had the skull of a tiger in it, and an entire tiger skeleton was submerged in a large tank.

Many Lao people grumble about China’s spreading footprint in their country. But the investments are also creating jobs – 10,000 in Kings Romans’ special economic zone alone – and only some going to Chinese nationals.

And Laos are adapting. New Chinese language schools have sprung up in the past year or two, especially in provinces nearer China.

A 60 year old Lao man recalled to me how he had studied in France as a young man, in a town near Marseilles. Like many of his generation he speaks fluent French. But he laughed as he traced Laotians’ choice of language studies, which closely reflected geopolitical and economic realities. After French colonial rule ended in 1954, English was briefly in fashion, and then Russian – a reflection of the Cold War – until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Today, it is Chinese.

“Because,” he said, “China has the power.”nirmal@sph.com.sg