Type: Undergraduate Thesis & undergraduate Research Fellowship
Instructors: Ashley Scott Kelly & Xiaoxuan Lu
Time: Spring 2020
Location: Nam Tha River, Laos
The Nam Tha Hydropower Project is located in the far mountainous northwest of Laos. It would require the resettlement of around 9000 mostly indigenous people from 1,379 households in 34 villages, most of whom are ethnic minority people. It would also impact downstream communities along the Nam Tha River and the mainstream Mekong. This project is going to define the village-level impact scope of hydropower projects in Laos with the case of Nam Tha Dam. The main strategy is to create an “archive of livelihood sheds” over time, as well as suggesting this as a new form of impact assessment (“Assessment via itinerary” ) of Nam Tha Dam in nearby rural areas. This counter-mapping strategy with Landaccount device and website will identify the complexity of the contexts of villages in the reservoir area and empower indigenous groups to fight against the technical system.
Comparing the half-century of hydropower projects in Laos, Nam Tha Dam has flooded not much land, much less than Nam Theun 2 and Nam Ngum 2, the first and second largest reservoirs in Laos. However, the population affected by the Nam Tha hydroelectric project is much larger than other hydroelectric projects, among which most are indigenous ethnic minorities.
During my research on hydropower projects in Laos, I identified several problems with the way impact assessments and compensation packages are typically handled. These issues include flawed valuation systems, inadequate resettlement plans, and problematic compensation processes. This imposed assessment system attempts to turn natural resources into capital in the way that political actors can benefit from them and the way that is legible, accountable, and available for foreign investments. A conceptual distinction exists between direct and indirect impacts of the new value system, in which infrastructure planners and financiers maneuver their scope of responsibilities. The complexity of the locals' livelihood values are excluded from the new value system and are thus excluded from the mainstream assessment system.
Take Khon khum Village as an example. Like other projects in Laos, the Nam Tha Hydropower Project used the existing "neutral" technocratic system to make profits and resulted in disadvantaged groups being more vulnerable. At the village level, the complexity of livelihoods was ignored by the developers, such as traditional s tream fishing methods, ecotourism relied on rapids and streams.
In terms of the restoring livelihood of relocated individuals, depending on the developer's compensation and mitigation is unreliable. The strategy to help people on the ground has to ensure their capacity to control their own futures. In the book Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen argued that development is the process by which people acquire the capacity to choose their own lives. Intervention proposals should develop the emancipatory potential to free people from capitalistic constraints and neoliberal constraints in infrastructure development projects. Even if these proposals or campaigns fail, there can be positive results in terms of team building and community building when efforts are focused on the means, processes, or participatory aspects in which people can take ownership over projects. These efforts will result in village-scale capacity building.
One of the ways that may assist locals in building capacity to choose their own lives is through indigenous counter-mapping. Around the world, indigenous movements have provided numerous precedents related to how locals can defend their rights to resist the mainstream system's power. Meanwhile, these precedents, such as Counter‐mapping forest territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia, the campaign against Papua New Guinea’s Ok Tedi mine, Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project, have forced international organizations and multinational companies to recognize and legitimize subsistence rights to a large extent.
When indigenous people are creating maps, they are viewing the world not necessarily spatially, but also historically in terms of moving from one place to another, as well as the relationships between various places. Moreover, they construct a tight relationship between their bodies and the landscape, which also shapes their identity and inscribes their identity into the landscape. Thus, indigenous groups typically do not perceive their land or regard their land boundaries the way the state or corporations do. This idea of "biography as itinerary" in their mapping process is indeed a rebuttal against the dominant quantification and measurement system. The temporal analysis in their mapping technique and concept can supplement the missing nuances of livelihood profiles in Laos' current assessment system.
Sen, A. (2001). Development as freedom. Oxford Paperbacks.
Freeman, M. M. (2011). Looking back—and looking ahead—35 years after the Inuit land use and occupancy project. The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe canadien, 55(1), 20-31.
Kirsch, S. (2006). Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations in New Guinea. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Peluso, N. L. (1995). Whose woods are these? Counter‐mapping forest territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Antipode, 27(4), 383-406.
Landaccount is a mapping tool designed specifically for use by indigenous people. It consists of a handheld device and a webpage, and has simple functions such as taking pictures, recording audio, and recording GPS location. These functions are easy for indigenous people to learn and use, allowing them to document their livelihoods using the device. Landaccount maps the life paths of individual people and villages, providing a platform for indigenous people to share their stories and experiences with a wider audience.
These challenges include limited exposure to and familiarity with smart devices, lack of access to electricity in their villages, and limited time and resources due to the need to work daily. Additionally, indigenous people may have a limited understanding of environmental impact assessments, making them more vulnerable to being forced to accept compensation packages from developers without fully understanding their options or the potential consequences. As a result, they may be unable to effectively fight for benefits and protect their rights.
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