On an expanse of recently cleared land, laborers prepare seedlings for a new Chinese banana plantation that is taking shape near the Lao capital in defiance of a central government prohibition on such projects.
Radio Free Asia located the 30-hectare site about five kilometers (3 miles) from the nearest highway in Nasaythong district of Vientiane municipality. A dozen Lao laborers live in shacks in the unshaded field, with no sanitation and just a fetid, muddy puddle of water to bathe in after a day’s work under the watchful eye of two Chinese supervisors.
One of the Lao workers said she was quitting. She’d decided that the risk of using excessive pesticides and herbicides isn’t worth the 60,000 kip (about $7) she earns for day’s work at the site, about 25 kilometers from Vientiane. It feels a lot further away than that--down a muddy road, an hour’s trek from the nearest village, Eelay Neua.
“Young banana trees are not given many chemicals, but a lot will be used when the banana trees grow,” said the woman, seated in the shaded of a shack fashioned from woven bamboo and plastic sheeting. “That’s why I quit. I don’t want to work here.”
She didn’t think much of the living conditions either. “See the muddy water we bathed in near the drain pipe,” she said, pointing to the dirty puddle nearby. The woman, who was waiting for her pay, didn’t want to be named in case she got into trouble.
She was from the southern city of Pakse, but most of the workers were from the northern province of Luang Prabang. There was also one Chinese laborer, who spoke no Lao language.
This new plantation is the latest sign that the business of cultivating bananas in Laos for the Chinese market – widely discredited because of the impact of the excessive use of chemicals on the environment and health – is alive and kicking.
A Nasaythong district official, who would also only speak to RFA on condition of anonymity, said the plantation was a “pilot project” and the banana trees won’t be planted until Vientiane authorities have completed an environmental impact assessment. He said excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides would not be allowed.
Ban remains in force
The central government, however, maintains that a January 2017 ban on new banana plantations remains in force, forbidding such plantations. The prohibition was prompted by concerns about chemical run-off and reports of sickened farm laborers.
“The government strictly maintains a ban on new banana farms in Laos and will punish those who violate the rules,” Deputy Agriculture Minister Bounkhouang Khambounheuang told RFA, adding that unauthorized plantations will have their operations “put on hold or shut down.”
“The government only allowed Nasaythong and Pak Ngum districts to grow cassava and maize to supply factories, instead of growing bananas,” he said referring to another district in the municipality.
“Banana plantations are banned because they pollute the Mekong and Ngum rivers and the Vientiane water system.”
But the reality is that in recent months local officials around Laos have granted concessions for new banana plantations in provinces that include Xayabury, Oudomxay and Borikhamxay. RFA has also learned that a substantial area in the southern province of Attapeu is being used for banana plantations--including land slated for villagers displaced by the deadly July 2018 collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam.
That likely reflects a continuing demand for the fruit from China.
Fresh Plaza, a website that tracks prices of fresh produce on international markets, reported this week that banana prices in China have been rising continuously this year because of a decline of supply in its principal growing areas such as the southern province of Guangxi.
In late May, Laos’ state-run Vientiane Times newspaper reported that bananas were expected to be Laos' top agricultural export in 2019 despite the government’s ban on the expansion of plantations around the country. It cited a Ministry of Industry and Commerce forecast that exports would rise to $168 million in 2019, up from $112 million in 2018. It said the bulk of the crop would be sent to China and Thailand.
Over the past two decades, agriculture in Laos has shifted from traditional subsistence farming to growing cash crops, and increasingly farmers and landowners are catering for the massive Chinese market. Chinese agricultural investors are attracted to Laos by low land rentals and labor costs--and perhaps lax regulation.
A 2017 report by the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development after visiting banana plantations said that “a serious and extreme change in pesticide use” was required in Laos. It found that export banana farms were using “a huge quantity of pesticides that represents a great danger for health and the environment.”
It was because of such concerns that the central government issued its orders forbidding new banana concessions. But even in areas where provincial authorities have adhered to the prohibition, farms have been allowed to continue operating until their current contracts expire.
In the Sing district of northern Luang Namtha province--which borders China--there are around 100 hectares of banana plantations now. That’s down from 1,500 hectares a few years ago, according to a local agriculture official.
At one Akha hill tribe village visited by RFA, villagers have been growing bananas for a Chinese investor for the last six years. The contract has another two years to run. One woman there said that her husband had urinated blood after working in the plantation. She said she wouldn’t allow her children to play in the plantation next to her house because they might get sick.
A doctor at a hospital in Sing district confirmed that banana plantation workers had gotten sick, suffering from headaches, skin rashes, exhaustion and liver problems. The doctor said the number of patients has declined as plantations have shut down, but between 10 and 15 people are still coming for treatment.
Such experiences have dissuaded many Lao from eating the large “Cavendish” type of bananas--known locally as “kuay hom” and “kuay ngao”--that are grown for the Chinese market. But when asked about it, people around the country also often observe that those bananas don’t have as much flavor as the smaller, native “kuay nam” bananas that are commonly grown and eaten in Laos.
”Nobody eats them, nobody wants to buy them,” one vendor at the bustling evening market in the western Lao city of Huay Xai said of the larger bananas grown for China.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service.