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‘Meuang Chin’ and the Political Hydrologies of Dispossession in Beung That Luang

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

Authors: Wanjing (Kelly) Chen, University of Wisconsin-Madison (wchen275@wisc.edu) & Miles Kenney-Lazar, National University of Singapore (geokmr@nus.edu.sg)

Ai Seng[i] recalled one afternoon toward the end of the rainy season in 2012 when he was sitting on his porch, feeling relieved. Dwelling on the edge of Beung That Luang (That Luang Marsh in Lao), one of the last remaining wetlands in Vientiane, the national capital of Laos, his residential land had been spared from incorporation into a new urban development on the marshlands. In late 2007, the Lao government granted a 50-year state land concession of 1,600 hectares (ha) within the 2,000-ha Beung That Luang to a Chinese company for the development of a “modern town” with business centers, hotels, factories, and tourism facilities (Vientiane Times 2007). Details soon emerged that the concession was a form of compensation for a $100 million loan that the China Development Bank had provided to the Lao government to construct a national stadium for the 2009 Southeast Asian Games, held in Laos for the first time (Associated Press 2008). The concession was cancelled in 2010 after an outpouring of discontent from Vientiane residents and criticism from within the government concerning the placement of an exclusive Chinatown so close to That Luang, a stupa that is the crown jewel of national culture, as well as unsubstantiated rumors that 50,000 Chinese would move into the zone.


In late 2011, however, Beung That Luang was targeted again when the government granted a new, smaller concession of 365 ha to the opportunistic Wang Feng Shanghai Real Estate company (hereafter, Wang Feng) to develop a $1.5 billion Special Economic Zone (SEZ) comprised of luxury condominiums, hotels, shopping centers, and publicly accessible “lake” and park (see Figure 1) (Vientiane Times 2011). While Ai Seng and his fellow villagers were unaware of the earlier deal-making, they knew something was going on this time, as engineers and land officials stopped by every now and then to survey the area. Eventually, the details of the project were revealed to them as those whose land would be acquired were summoned to meetings with the project developers in batches. Luckily for Ai Seng, he was not among them. Although he was still spooked by rumors that the project, which came to be known locally as Meuang Chin (Chinatown in Lao), would continue to outwardly expand and engulf his lands, he was assured that he could keep his land when the boundary of the project was established just 200 meters away from his house.


Figure 1. Artist’s rendition of the planned That Luang Lake SEZ or Meuang Chin. Source: http://www.investlaos.gov.la/index.php/where-to-invest/special-economic-zone?start=7

Figure 2. Satellite imagery showing the progressive enclosure of Beung That Luang. Source: Google Earth.

During successive research trips from 2016 to 2018, we investigated the social and environmental impacts of the That Luang Marsh SEZ and associated transformations of Beung That Luang, with a particular interest in how residents of the wetland are politically engaging with such changes. This blog post is a reflection on our initial findings from this research, with a focus on political hydrology – how the enclosure of the marsh has altered its hydrological flows and generated new forms of dispossession. These changes speak to debates about the management and enclosure of commons in Southeast Asia. Although this commons does not traverse national borders, Beung That Luang is connected through meandering tributaries to the Mekong River and thus is linked to a transboundary environmental commons.


Not only did Meuang Chin lead to the dispossession of residents’ agricultural and residential land, it has radically transformed the ways in which water flows throughout the area and has thus remade community-water relations and water-based livelihoods. Ai Seng revealed to us that he was not prepared for such a hydrological shift. Shortly after the boundary of the SEZ had been established, a team of district officials approached an irrigation pump a dozen meters away from his house, lifted the pump there up onto their truck, and swiftly drove away, leaving only a concrete pipe behind (Figure 3). The removal of the irrigation pump was detrimental for his annual income—it was one crucial node in the irrigation system that gave life to dry season rice cultivation along the outer rim of Beung That Luang. In the past, this area was only watery enough for farming during the monsoon season. From the 1980s to early 2000s, however, four irrigation canals were consecutively laid down, channeling water from the Mekong River into the marsh to enable dry season paddy rice farming. Water was first injected into the large permanent reservoir at the heartland of That Luang marsh and then slowly drained out from there to irrigate all paddies at the edge of the marsh.

Figure 3. A pipe without a pump near Ai Seng’s land

Beung That Luang’s irrigation infrastructure was constructed during a period of socialist nation building, just after the country had been liberated from the Second Indochina War and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established in 1975. At that historical juncture, the government was seeking to achieve national rice self-sufficiency as American financial and rice aid was cut off at the end of the war (Evans 1995). The newly formed Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) began channeling foreign aid and technology from the Soviet Union, Japan, and the European Union into the construction of reservoir-based dry season irrigation systems across major lowland population centers along the Mekong river, including the Vientiane floodplain (Schiller et al. 2006). These crucial inputs paid off – by 2001, the country’s dry season irrigated rice production increased more than tenfold (ibid).


Farmers like Ai Seng were well aware of the value that the pumps, pipes, and canals that ran alongside paddy lands on the edges of the marsh brought to them. Such mundane infrastructure had dramatically boosted their household income. Taking Ai Seng’s family for example, on their 1.6 ha of rice paddy they were able to produce four tons of rice during the rainy season and five tons during the dry season. The rainy season rice was enough for yearly household consumption while the dry season rice, which reportedly was of better quality, would be sold to generate a cash income. Around 2010, Ai Seng’s family was making around 10 million kip (US$1,200) per year by selling dry season rice, a sizable amount of money in a country with a per capita GDP of $US300 at the time (World Bank 2019).


The removal of the pump near Ai Seng’s house in late 2012 put an immediate end to this crucially important stream of income for his family. Soon after, most pipes hidden beneath paddy fields were dug up and irrigation canals filled (Figure 3). Why would the Lao state dismantle the irrigation infrastructure that it had previously worked so hard to build? Ai Seng was puzzled by this at first, but by the time we visited him in 2018, he had figured it out: ‘Meuang Chin cannot be built with too much water. He was referencing the hydrological challenge of placing an SEZ in the middle of a marshland. As with the historical enclosure of marshlands elsewhere, the muddy, spongy land had to be drained to establish solid ground suitable for construction that would not be easily flooded. Cutting off the irrigation system that injected water into the reservoir of the marsh during the dry season was an important step of preparation before construction could break ground.


Figure 4: A section of the previous irrigation canal that has been filled in

Yet, the paddy fields that had not been appropriated by Meuang Chin were not only subjected to drought due to a lack of irrigated water in the dry season. They were also increasingly affected by flooding due to the massive land reclamation that was required for the construction of Meuang Chin. About 250 meters north of Ai Seng’s house, sat the residential and paddy land of Ai Seng’s friend, Ai Toui. Unlike Ai Seng, he had lost 10% of his paddy field to Meuang Chin and the rest sat next to a narrow new canal dug by the developer and a 2-meter wall of earth, both of which acted as the border of the project (Figure 5). Although he was glad to keep 90% of his land, unlike others he knew who had lost much more, he quickly learned that the new landscape made his field vulnerable to flooding during the rainy season. While giving us a tour of his land, he explained to us that almost two thirds of it would be submerged under water after rain. This was evident a few days later when a regular downpour of the wet season flooded the paddy fields in the area (Figure 6). Ai Toui remarked that the flooding would last for days, as there was no effective outlet for water to drain away like in the past, when ‘It would automatically flow into the low-lying reservoir.’ A villager in the same boat as Ai Toui aptly summed up the situation: ‘Too much water in the rainy season, too little water in the dry season’.

Figure 5: The canal and embankment bordering Meuang Chin

Figure 6: Flooded rice paddy after a downpour

Ai Seng and Ai Toui represent a large group of peri-urban peasants who found their original livelihood in limbo after Meuang Chin reconstructed the waterscape of Beung That Luang. Due to the material constraints upon paddy rice farming as a result of changing hydrological flows and their comparatively low economic value in relation to new forms of urban development, farmers were inclined to sell off their plots. Within just a few years after the Chinese real estate project landed on ground, much of the remaining paddy land was bought up by Lao urban elites and foreign investors speculating on property prices in this area. This tragedy is a reminder that dispossession can take many forms. A reconstruction of irrigation systems can be just as effective as police and bulldozers. Yet, oftentimes victims of these less visible forces are out of sight and mind, with little recourse for resistance and political action.


References

Associated Press. 2008. ‘Chinatown’ stirs unusual rumblings about a small neighbor’s independence. 6 April.


Evans G. 1995. Lao peasants under socialism and post-socialism. Chiang Mai (Thailand): Silkworm Books.


Schiller J.M, Chanphengxay B., Linquist B., and Appa Rao S. 2006. Rice in Laos. International Rice Research Institute.


Vientiane Times. 2007. That Luang marsh slated for development. 12 October.


Vientiane Times. 2011. Chinese firm to spend US$1.5bn to develop That Luang marsh. 29 December.


World Bank. 2019. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=LA


Endnotes

[i] All names used in this blog post are pseudonyms.

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