by Oulavanh Keovilignavong
Five years ago, I travelled by bus to Pek district, Xieng Khouang Province, located about 400 km northeast of Vientiane Capital. The city centre of Pek district is known as Phonsavan town, where all provincial departments and administrations and Pek district offices are located in. This province is one of famous tourism destinations in Laos, due to its mountainous landscape, long history of Vietnam War, an ancient tourism site of Jar Plain and various multi-cultural ethnic groups (especially in Hmong groups). The provincial and national governments have an attempt to propose this site as UNNESCO world heritage monument.
During my travelling to Phonsavan town, I was very much impressed with a natural landscape, a dense forest cover, and a smiling of local people waving their hands to welcome the visitors along the road. While getting off the bus and heading to the town, surprisingly, I saw some opening forest areas on the top and slope of a mountain, which is about 6-7 km from town. This was surprised to me because the opening areas were large and messed up. The way it did was likely to destroy the beauty of nature and landscape.
At the same time, this scene drew a lot of my attention. In the next day morning, I asked some local residents regarding what happened in that mountain. From information collecting from them, the mountain is named as Phu He (or mineral mountain in Lao language). It was surrounded with dense forest area on its top hill and with rice-fields and houses of local residents at its foot-hill area. Its boundary is sketched about from 5 to10 km away from the town.
The story began with Phu Bia Company (PBC), owned 90% by Australian PanAust Limited Company and 10% by Lao government. PBC, one of the current largest mining investments in Laos, opened their new gold mine in Pek district, known as ‘Phonsavan Copper-Gold Project’ and one of its sites in Phonsavan project was located in Phu He, named as ‘Phu He Gold prospect.’ In 2005, Phu Bia started its exploration planning by drilling several holes to get soil samples in many spots along Phu He. Before drilling program, PBC did not make clear on local consultation with local people regarding their investment activities. During drilling program, PBC just hired some local people as their labours for drilling activities and then taking the soil samples. After drilling program, some of the local people were curious about the company activities. They visited the drilling holes and found some small pieces of gold in the soil and stone, and then took these gold stones to sell at the local market for cash. The issue became tensioned when news about finding gold in Phu He was quickly spread-out. People from the local and elsewhere came to Phu He to find the gold by illegally digging up the ground with simple tools and extracting the occasional gold nuggets. After learning this story, I decided to visit one of some spots where the people were still illegally digging grounds for the gold stones.
After reaching the spot, I observed that people really opened a large area of mountainous surface by digging some holes to find gold nuggets with simple tools (hoe, spade and trowel). These types of illegal mining activities were significant to have negative impacts on streams, river, and forest and mountain areas, especially during raining seasons.
I could predict that local environmental, water and forestry resources were heavily damaged, polluted and destroyed. To understand local perceptions on local resources around Phu He. I informally talked to some persons in the local community nearby Phu He. Surprisingly, I received different opinions from them. Many of them viewed that natural resources including water, land and forestry in Phu He belonged to them as they have used, protected and managed these resources for a long time. This belief was relevant to the undertaking government policy on land use and allocation during early 1990s as large areas of Phu He were assigned to local people to manage and utilised in sustainable manners for their livelihoods. Therefore, some of them considered that they were the owners of these resources. Some of retired soldiers and Hmong people who respected the government’s leadership said that the State was the owners of these resources, and supported the governments to use the resources for their local development. Others who participated in gold digging claimed that they saw the foreign company to destroy their resources so why they had to protect their resources in Phu He.
Obviously, these diverse views of local resource use in Phu He would create significant challenges to the local governments on how to use and manage their resources in sustainable manners. To me, this phenomenon has increased my interest to further examine on how mining investment has shaped local water governance, livelihoods and gender equity of local community in Phu He at the present time or after five years later.