Residents of a rural village in Laos are asking local government authorities to stop leasing their rice paddies to a Chinese watermelon grower during the off season, the villagers say.
The NAMPheung company had been leasing 180 hectares of land (445 acres) in Ngeun district of the country’s northwestern Xayabury province for the past three years, the villagers told RFA. The company uses the land from December to April to grow watermelons and then returns it to the villagers before rice-planting season.
After three years under this arrangement, the villagers say they can no longer tolerate the chemical damage NAMPheung causes to their farms and the environment.
“The land is damaged. When they return the land to us for rice planting, yields are down and of lesser quality,” one villager told RFA’s Lao Service, requesting anonymity for security reasons.
“The Chinese investors dig into the land so deep so the farmers have to fill up the land before planting. It’s a waste of money labor and time,” the villager said, adding, “The villagers don’t want to lease the
The villager said that laborers in other provinces who work on Chinese melon farms report that Chinese company workers sometimes steal villagers’ property, including livestock, and that they relieve themselves wherever they happen to be because so many farms are located far from toilets.
Another villager told RFA that NAMPheung uses more land than it is entitled to, leaving the villagers unable to grow cash crops during the dry season.
“The Chinese said they would take all the land and pay the villagers not to grow any vegetables… A high-level official came to the village to ask if anyone would refuse those terms. The villagers can’t say anything. They can only agree,” the second villager said.
The original agreement with NAMPheung was only for one year, according to the second villager, but now the melon growers have been there three years in a row, and the villagers fear retaliation if they complain.
An official of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry in the district told RFA that the local Office of Planning and Investment has now drafted a new contract for the investors to grow watermelon for a six-month period between September 2021 and April 2022.
Under the new contract, the leasing fees are increased, and NAMPheung is required to use less chemicals and to properly clean and improve the land before returning it to the villagers before rice planting season.
“They have agreed to pay five million kip [U.S. $500] per hectare for rice farmland and four million [$400] for vegetable and fruit farms. This is more than reasonable, but still some of the villagers are not happy,” the official said.
The villagers say they are aware of the new contract, but still doubt the company will strictly follow the guidelines regarding the land’s condition and the use of chemicals.
Chinese watermelon growers are currently leasing land in three other Xayabury districts—Hongsa, Hone, and Khob—data from the Agriculture and Forestry Office of Ngeun district show.
Foreign-invested farming, mining, and development projects in Laos have sparked friction over cases of environmental pollution and land taken without proper compensation, and Lao villagers affected by land grabs often fear to speak out publicly because of concerns over official retaliation.
China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner after Thailand.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Eugene Whong.