Archive for June, 2012

June 30, 2012

Cambodian villagers protest controversial Laos dam

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By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH, June 29 | Fri Jun 29, 2012 5:11am EDT

(Reuters) – Cambodian villagers demonstrated on Friday against a controversial Lao hydropower dam that activists say is being built in defiance of an agreement to assess its potentially damaging impact on millions of people first.

About 200 villagers whose livelihoods depend on the Mekong River urged a halt to the Thai-led construction of the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam, which has angered Cambodia’s government and triggered a rare rebuke by Laos’s biggest ally, Vietnam.

“This dam won’t just affect the people in our country but will also affect many parts of Laos,” said Buddhist monk So Pra, organiser of the protest in Kompong Cham province, 124 km (77 miles) from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

The Xayaburi dam is one of dozens planned as part of Laos’s aggressive push to boost its tiny $7.5 billion economy and become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting the vast majority of its power.

Foreign governments are concerned Laos is prioritising its growth ambitions over ecological and environmental protection.

Under pressure from neighbours that felt its environmental impact study was inadequate, Laos agreed in December to suspend the project pending an assessment by foreign experts. Four countries share the lower stretches of the 4,900 km (3,044 mile) Mekong — Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Environmental group International Rivers released a report this week saying it had witnessed Ch Karnchang Pcl, Thailand’s second-biggest construction firm, resettling villagers, beefing up labour, building a large retaining wall and undertaking dredging to deepen and widen the riverbed.

“So far, Ch Karnchang claims that they are only going forward with ‘preliminary construction’ on the project,” said Kirk Herbertson, Mekong Campaigner for International Rivers.

“Ripping up the riverbed and resettling entire villages cannot be considered a preliminary activity.”

Te Navuth, secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Commission, said Laos had violated a 1995 agreement requiring prior consultation before starting any development on the Mekong.

“Laos always said that it’s just preparatory work,” he said, adding Cambodia and Vietnam would jointly demand a halt.

Thailand could also be affected but, although small protests have taken place there, the government has been reluctant to oppose the project.

Ch Karnchang has a 57 percent share in the Xayaburi, which Thai banks are helping to finance. State-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) will buy electricity generated by the plant.

(Editing by Martin Petty)

June 29, 2012

Ch. Karnchang Plows Forward with Xayaburi Dam Construction

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Date: Tuesday, June 26, 2012

For Immediate Release

Bangkok, Thailand – A recent investigation of the Xayaburi Dam site by International Rivers revealed that Thai company Ch. Karnchang has already undertaken significant resettlement and construction activities, contrary to claims that only preliminary work is underway.

Despite Ch. Karnchang’s recent statements that it will comply with the Lao government’s commitment to postpone construction until there is regional agreement, International Rivers found construction activities underway during a visit last week to the dam site and 15 affected villages. Recent activities include dredging to deepen and widen the riverbed at the dam site, the construction of a large concrete retaining wall, and an increase in the company’s local labor force. One village, Houay Souy, was already resettled from the dam’s planned spillway to near Xayaboury town in January 2012.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers, said, “By proceeding with resettlement and construction on the Xayaburi Dam, Ch. Karnchang has blatantly defied the diplomatic process underway to decide on the future of the Mekong River. The company has violated the trust of the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, with apparent impunity.”

On June 2, Mr. Aswin Kongsiri, Chairperson of the Ch. Karnchang Board of Directors told the Bangkok Post that “the Lao government will ultimately make the final decision on whether the project will go ahead, but we want to wait for all stakeholders in the Greater Mekong Subregion to agree with it.” Mr. Aswin indicated that the company had not yet started construction, stating “we have thus focused on project preparation, mainly financing and the environmental impact report.”  These claims came weeks after the Lao government publicly announced that dam construction had been postponed and only “preliminary construction” such as building access roads had taken place.

“So far, Ch Karnchang claims that they are only going forward with ‘preliminary construction’ on the project, but the definition of ‘preliminary’ keeps expanding,” said Kirk Herbertson, Mekong Campaigner for International Rivers. “Ripping up the riverbed and resettling entire villages cannot be considered a preliminary activity.”

Interviews with resettled families from Houay Souy revealed a series of broken promises made by Ch. Karnchang. Resettled households have yet to receive new agricultural land and have been required to spend much of their own compensation money to finish building the houses that were provided to them. Ch. Karnchang also reneged on a promise to provide one year of free electricity and water. Instead villagers were provided only one month free. The company has informed other villages that they will be moved as soon as December 2012, but said they will not compensate the villagers for the loss of fisheries, access to agricultural land, gold panning, and other major sources of food and income, in violation of Lao law.

Teerapong Pomun, Director of Thai NGO Living River Siam, who joined the trip to the dam site, said, “Even at this early stage, the Xayaburi Dam is causing harm to local people and the environment. Ch. Karnchang needs to be held accountable for its irresponsible and illegal behavior. It’s only a matter of time before the damage to the river’s ecosystem and fisheries begins to impact downstream countries like Thailand, something the company has failed to even take into account.”

On June 28-29, the governments of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) will meet with development partners in Vientiane, Laos for the MRC’s Informal Donor Meeting 2012. The issue of the Mekong mainstream dams is expected to be on the agenda.

“Ch. Karnchang’s ongoing construction activities are creating conflict among the Mekong countries,” said Mr. Herbertson. “No construction should be allowed that places future cooperation along the Mekong River in jeopardy. It’s time for the Thai and Lao governments to hold firm to their commitments and require Ch. Karnchang to respect the diplomatic process.”

In addition to Ch. Karnchang’s role, Thailand has close links to the Xayaburi Dam. The project is being financed by Thai commercial banks. An estimated 95% of the dam’s electricity would be sold to Thailand. In July, communities from eight Thai provinces along the Mekong River are expected to bring a lawsuit against the Thai government for signing an agreement to purchase the dam’s electricity in violation of their constitutional rights.

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June 28, 2012

Xayaburi Construction Moves Ahead

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Work on the Mekong dam in northern Laos has gone beyond preliminary preparations, an environmental group says.

Photo: RFA
A map showing Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River in Laos.

An international NGO has said construction on Laos’s controversial Xayaburi hydropower dam is moving ahead despite promises to suspend the project following uproar from neighboring countries and environmental groups.

Construction and resettlement activities at the dam site have been “significant” and contradict claims by Lao officials and the dam developer that only preliminary work has been done on the project, the environmental group International Rivers said in a statement Wednesday after investigating of the dam.

The project, as the first dam on the mainstream Lower Mekong, is also the first to undergo a controversial review process through the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a four-nation body that manages development along the river and has not yet given a go-ahead for the project.

A member of an NGO in Thailand associated with International Rivers who visited the dam site told RFA that construction is continuing at all hours of the day.

“When looking at the dam site, you can see construction is going on all the time,” he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.

He said Ch. Karnchang, the Thai developer tasked with construction of the 1260-megawatt hydropower project, has already begun to build a dam wall where a village used to be.

“People in Houay Souy village have already been resettled to a new area, and in the area where their village used to be the construction company is building the retaining wall. The land in front of the dam is cleared,” he said.

More than 330 villagers from 65 families in Houay Souy village have been resettled, he said.

Roads have been built alongside the Mekong River and land in the mountains has been flattened, he said.

“Vehicles are running back and forth all the time,” he added.

A member of another NGO traveling to Xayaburi on other business confirmed his account and International Rivers’ report.

“Ch. Karnchang company has begun the construction of the infrastructure at the dam site; for example, the construction of roads and workers’ shelters is 40 percent completed,” he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.

Officials contacted by RFA at the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press department refused to comment on the status of the dam.

In May, Sithong Chitgnothin, director of the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press department, told RFA construction on the dam had been halted. Other Lao officials have said only preliminary construction, such as on roads around the site, is proceeding pending further studies by the MRC.

Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraponh Viravong said that the dam may have to be redesigned to avoid adverse impact on the environment by allowing more river sediment to flow through the dam, a key concern for downstream countries whose agriculture depends on the river.

Controversy over the dam has flared since April, when Ch. Karnchang said it had signed a contract for the project’s construction, even though the MRC had recommended the project be postponed pending further study.

Environmental groups in Thailand, where Laos plans to send 95 percent of the Xayaburi’s electricity, have staged a series of protests against the company and a group of Thai banks lending the firm funds to proceed with construction.

The Chiang Rai-based Lower Mekong People’s Network, which represents communities from seven different provinces in Thailand along the Mekong River, plans to file a lawsuit against the company in July.

International Rivers

“Recent activities include dredging to deepen and widen the riverbed at the dam site, the construction of a large concrete retaining wall, and an increase in the company’s local labor force,” International Rivers said in its report on the investigation of the Xayaburi area.

The group said Ch. Karnchang had broken its promises to only begin initial construction.

“So far, Ch Karnchang claims that they are only going forward with ‘preliminary construction’ on the project, but the definition of ‘preliminary’ keeps expanding,” said Kirk Herbertson, Mekong campaigner for International Rivers. “Ripping up the riverbed and resettling entire villages cannot be considered a preliminary activity.”

“By proceeding with resettlement and construction on the Xayaburi Dam, Ch. Karnchang has blatantly defied the diplomatic process underway to decide on the future of the Mekong River. The company has violated the trust of the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, with apparent impunity,” Ame Trandem, the group’s Southeast Asia program director said.

The group also found that resettled families had not received the new agricultural land and year’s worth of free electricity and water promised them by the developer.

Last month, the Lower Mekong People’s Network submitted a letter to the MRC requesting an update on the dam, but said it had received no response.

The group says the dam is likely to damage the Mekong ecosystem, fisheries, and food security of the people on both sides of the river.

The Mekong River originates in China and flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  Its silt deposits provide rich soil nutrients for rice and other crops.

In December, Laos and the three other MRC member countries—Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—agreed work on the dam should be postponed pending the results of a new environmental impact assessment, which was to be conducted by Japan.

An earlier study by an expert group had recommended a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream Mekong dams due to a need for further research on their potentially catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic impact.

Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

Copyright © 1998-2011 Radio Free Asia. All rights reserved.

June 28, 2012

Laos freezes land concessions

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HANOI, 27 June 2012: Laos will not allow any new investments in mining or grant further land concessions for rubber plantations until 2015 at the earliest due to concerns about land encroachment, state media said Tuesday.

The government will examine existing investment policies and assess ongoing projects, the Vientiane Times said, adding that authorities would also review the environmental and social impact of major development projects.

“We approved large plots of land without looking into the details, like what land belonged to the state and which belonged to local people,” the paper quoted Minister of Planning and Investment Somdy Duangdy as saying.

Inadequate land surveys ahead of major development projects have led to a rash of complaints over encroachment of villagers’ land, and also created a range of environmental problems, he said.

Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong

“We will now inspect all approved investment projects,” he said.

In future, “before approving any more projects, we will ensure that a thorough survey and allocation of land is undertaken”, he said.

The move was welcomed by land rights activists, including the Land Issues Working Group (LIWG), a network of Lao civil society organisations, which hailed the halt on new concessions as “an important step”.

“However, this is not the first moratorium on concessions, and the previous ones have not been enforced,” LIWG coordinator Hanna Saarinen told AFP by email.

“Several concessions have been documented to undermine national laws, as well as food security and well-being of communities,” she added.

The government must “ensure that investments benefit the Lao society as a whole. Local people should be given the right to choose whether or not to have a land concession in their area.”

According to the Vientiane Times, since 1998 the government has approved nearly US$25 billion of investment — mostly foreign and concentrated in the mining, hydropower and agricultural sectors.

Projects related to tourism including hotels, casinos, resorts and tourist attractions have also been identified as possible areas where land was illegally given to foreign enterprises. A railway project funded and constructed by the Chinese was postponed indefinitely over demands that a strip of land 5 km wide along the length of the high-speed rail track would be made available to the Chinese for industrial or agricultural development.

The presence of foreign, particularly Chinese, investors in Laos, a landlocked communist country of about 6 million people, has raised increasing local concern despite bringing much needed foreign cash.

© 1994-2012 Agence France-Presse

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June 26, 2012

Donors Should Not be “Partners in Crime” with Rights Abusers

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Rebecca Schleifer

Advocacy Director, Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

Around the world, millions of people are locked up because of drug use. Some languish in prisons, some in compulsory drug detention centers. Few have access to effective, evidence-based treatment for drug dependency if they need it. The problem is not isolated in any one part of the world, but it is most pernicious when international donors and UN agencies promote and fund drug detention policies that systematically deny people the right to due process and healthcare, and ignore forced labor and psychological and physical abuse.

The relationship of the US government and Laos is an example.

Earlier in June, with much fanfare, the U.S. Government pledged a new round of funding and collaboration in Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The U.S. committed $400,000 to support the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision to “upgrade the treatment of drug addicts at the Somsanga Treatment Center and at other centers.”

The name Somsanga should ring alarm bells. Human Rights Watch conducted research in Laos in 2011 as part of a series of investigations of drug detention centers. It was not easy. Laos is largely a closed country, which permits little free speech or scrutiny of its human rights record.

What the government and its donors describe as a voluntary “health-oriented” center arbitrarily detains people who use drugs – including those who are not dependent – as well as street children, the homeless, the mentally ill, and other undesirable populations behind high walls and barbed wire.

Somsanga holds most people against their will. They are detained by police or local militia, or “volunteered” by local communist commune authorities or family members who have the mistaken belief that the center offers therapeutic treatment, or who buckle under social pressure to make their village “drug free.” Once inside, they cannot leave. Some attempt or commit suicide by ingesting glass, swallowing soap, or hanging. As Maesa, a child who spent six months in Somsanga, told Human Rights Watch: “Some people think that to die is better than staying there.”

Upgrading drug treatment and tackling crime are worthy goals. But the U.S. should not so blithely ignore the Laos government’s history of human rights violations at the Somsanga Center. It needs to insist on development of stronger legal protections to ensure that people cannot be subject to arbitrary detention and torture, and on community and evidence-based drug dependency treatment.

Detention in government centers in the name of treatment and rehabilitation is not unique to Laos. As Human Rights Watch and other research has shown, hundreds of thousands people identified as drug users are held in drug detention centers in China, Vietnam and Cambodia too.

Nor are such centers and what goes on inside their locked doors and high walls the only human rights abuses associated with drug enforcement funding. Thirty-two countries worldwide retain the death penalty for drug offenses. China, Iran and Vietnam are among those that utilize the death penalty the most, and they all get drug enforcement assistance from international donors and the United Nations.

Governments and drug control agencies regularly announce successes in fighting the drug trade, counted in kilos of drugs seized and numbers of people prosecuted. But we rarely hear about the fate of those arrested, including how they came to be involved in the drug trade. Those sentenced to death become a statistic in drug enforcement “successes,” while passing simultaneously into human rights statistics documenting ongoing abuse.

It is a clear example of the wide gap between drug control and respect for human rights.

In recent years, due to the efforts of Harm Reduction International, Human Rights Watch and our colleagues and partners, there have been increasing calls to close all drug detention centers and end the death penalty for drugs.

But there has been little practical progress toward ending these abuses. UN agencies and international donors continue to fund activities inside drug detention centers, and to support drug enforcement efforts despite the human rights consequences.

Scant attention has been paid to the UN and international donors’ human rights obligations and ethical responsibilities with respect to drug control efforts they support, or indeed to safeguards to prevent them from effectively facilitating human rights abuses with their support.

A new report called “Partners in Crime” makes an important contribution to addressing this gap. In providing specific examples of financial and material support provided by UN and international donors for drug control efforts, and human rights concerns raised by such support, the report compels readers to think critically about government efforts to meet their shared responsibility to address drug use and drug-related crime. It should serve as a catalyst to ensure that all governments – including donors – and international actors move quickly to develop and support drug control policies that truly respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.

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