In this seminar, Dr Oliver Tappe examined the complex nature of the mining practices in Laos, and assessed the adverse impact of the industry on the rural villages in the country.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME SEMINAR
Tuesday, 25 February 2020 — Dr Oliver Tappe, Visiting Fellow with the Regional Social and Cultural Studies (RSCS) Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, spoke at a China in Mainland Southeast Asia seminar on mining practices in Laos. His talk examined how local livelihoods and the environment are affected by traditional and modern mining practices and its burgeoning industries led by Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese stakeholders.
The Laotian government has often marketed the country as a resource-rich frontier. In recent decades, Laos has attracted both local and foreign investments into its lucrative primary industries. These investments have gone into resource sectors such as logging, mining, cash crops such as rubber and watermelon, as well as hydropower. Dr Tappe also observed that large amounts of foreign investment have gone into infrastructure projects, for instance, the Chinese-Laos Railway Project. He argued that while the surge in investment has brought economic growth to Laos, the country’s development has been burdened with large longer-term debts and significant environmental costs.
Decades of unregulated ventures and unrestrained concessions have resulted in abandoned mines and irreversible damage to the landscape of the rural highlands. According to Dr Tappe, many Laotian villagers have used specialised knowledge and traditional craftsmen equipment to mine since the days of French colonial rule. Miners continue these artisanal mining practices even today. They have collaborated with larger corporations to exploit the landscape and are allowed to use the refinery machinery owned by these firms in exchange for an agreement to sell minerals at a fixed price.
Dr Tappe said that there is a major gap between state regulations and the implementation of laws to regulate mining activities. Chinese and Vietnamese corporations have a free hand in many of their mining projects, and many Laotian villagers fear that a foreign company may displace them from their land and uproot their way of life at any time. Dr Tappe also pointed towards the amount of chemicals and machinery used in large-scale mining which has caused serious damage to agricultural land. The health of villagers have also been affected by the chemical pollution. Dr Tappe called for the search of alternative industries to develop the rural areas, and more effective strategies by the state to upskill the rural labour force.
The seminar concluded with an engaging question and answer session. Several participants expressed their concerns about the well-being of workers. They posed questions on the role of labour unions, the rights of the migrant workforce, and the efficacy of local attempts to resist labour exploitation. Dr Tappe shared their concerns, but noted that the arduous nature of the mining industry has made regulations to protect workers’ rights difficult to uphold. For instance, the state-led union often focus on the workforce in urban centres, largely neglecting rural labour. Furthermore, foreign corporations have gone unchecked as they operate under different legal frameworks.