Learning by Seeing

Rick ReeceMekong River Basin, Vientiane Times0 Comments

by Reid Magdanz, MK11 project assistant

I admit I was skeptical of a study tour. From my upbringing in the US, I felt such trips more often served as vacations on someone else’s dime than transformative learning experiences. But it only took one day visiting the Theun-Hinboun Power Company (THPC) and a resettlement village, accompanied by over 20 village heads, district officers, and provincial employees from one of MK11’s research sites, for my skepticism to begin eroding.

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The bus was filled with conversation as it crawled up the winding mountain road away from the THPC offices – even the typically reticent village heads were making their voices heard. And there was plenty to talk about. At THPC, we had listened as the company explained its coordination with the local district, its resettlement and livelihood restoration programs, its grievance handling mechanisms, and the challenges it had faced. For many of those watching, it was the first time they had seen the development process described in clear terms. The talking continued until the bus’ occupants were overcome by the drowsiness brought on by hot air and slow roads.

The study tour participants at Khounkham District headquarters

The study tour participants at Khounkham District headquarters

The study tour, organized by MK 11 project leader Yhoksamay Lathsavong, went to two hydropower projects in Laos known for their high quality social and environmental programs – Theun-Hinboun in Khounkham District and Nam Theun 2 in Nakhai District, both in Khammouane Province. The participants numbered over 20, comprising the deputy governor, village heads and technical staff from MK11’s study site in Ngoy District, provincial officers from Luang Prabang Province, and members of the MK11 research team from Village Focus International and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Ngoy District is home to the Nam Ou 2 hydropower project, one of seven planned dams on the Ou river to be developed by Sinohydro. It is one of MK11’s case studies for examining gaps between policy and practice in the Lao PDR’s hydropower sector. One of the issues we had already identified was a lack of policy knowledge and management capacity among district staff, none of whom had been responsible for a hydropower project before. This study tour was organized to give these district staff – along with village leaders – an opportunity to learn about key issues in hydropower development, especially company-government coordination, compensation, resettlement, and grievance redress, from people with first hand experience. In addition to the THPC offices and first resettlement village, the study tour brought participants to the Khounkham District resettlement committee, the Nakhai District resettlement management unit, a relocated village on the banks of the Nakhai reservoir, the Nam Theun 2 public visitor’s center, and a resettlement village in Fueang District, Vientiane Province.

A truck belonging to the THPC Social and Environmental Division waits in the resettlement village

A truck belonging to the THPC Social and Environmental Division waits in the resettlement village

At each stop on the tour, my worries about its value faded more. I watched the village heads see for the first time houses built for resettled villagers, and I imagined them picturing what some of their villages would soon look like. I listened as best I could as they asked about compensation entitlements and the types of alternative livelihoods available after resettlement. They asked if people were resettled before construction began and learned that they had been, unlike in Ngoy District, where one still-occupied village sits inside the project construction site. They asked how much rice the new paddy fields would produce – not enough to support a family all year, said a THPC employee, due to the low pH of the soil. They asked for details on compensation packages – how much did people receive for their land? For their trees? Were they compensated for lost income from hunting, fishing, and gathering? What about community infrastructure: temples, electricity, and water supplies?

At the resettlement village in Nakhai, the conversation became animated as the village heads and district staff questioned a Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC) employee about fisheries development in the village, and learned that the company provided villagers with boats and fishing gear. How much did the fish sell for in the market, the visitors from Ngoy wanted to know.

A Nam Theun 2 Power Company employee explains the company's livelihood restoration strategy

A Nam Theun 2 Power Company employee explains the company’s livelihood restoration strategy

They liked the large houses built for resettled villagers by NTPC, and that each had a water tank. They disliked the corrugated metal roofing, though, deciding that back home they would ask for cement tile. Nakhai District staff provided additional advice: make sure you check the quality of the wood before the company starts building houses, they said, and ask for a concrete, not asphalt, road.

The village heads and district staff left some of the meetings to find villagers to talk to out of earshot of company representatives. Sometimes this yielded less sunny stories about livelihood development strategies: in Fueang District, villagers explained that raising pigs was difficult because they were not able to forage, meaning the villagers had to feed them. But the villagers worked hard to feed their own families, and finding additional food for the pigs was a struggle. Chickens were better, they said.

The district and provincial officers gathered lessons the village heads had less direct interest in. They paid close attention through presentations explaining in granular detail who, exactly, sat on the district coordination committee and how, exactly, grievances were received and resolved. Digital copies of scanned, stamped agreements authorizing district coordination committees appeared projected on the screen in the THPC meeting room, and were succeeded by a 50-page, Lao-language grievance redress manual.

In Nakhai, 101 text-heavy PowerPoint slides described the Nam Theun 2 project, the committees overseeing it, the infrastructure provided to resettled villages, alternative livelihood options, and the grievance resolution process. Afterwards, the government officers from Ngoy and Luang Prabang peppered the presenters with questions, asking for clarifications, more detail, and suggestions for getting Sinohydro to engage with them. They requested and received copies of the district committee agreements and grievance submission forms, to take home as examples.

The district staff saw the infrastructure and resources provided by the hydropower companies. The Nam Theun 2 resettlement management unit had its own building. Inside were computers; outside were cars. Staff received per diem and travel budgets to conduct project-related activities. Though they gave no outward signs, I imagined the Ngoy District officers looking at it all with envy: in Ngoy, the company has provided no direct financing to the district, and district offices there lack the resources – boats, motorbikes, per diem, gas money, even office supplies – necessary to do consultations, disseminate information, handle grievances, or conduct any other activities related to the dam.

The resettlement management unit building in Nakhai District

The resettlement management unit building in Nakhai District

As I went from one meeting to the next, I began to understand my original bias against study tours – in my world of the city, the internet, and English, accessing case studies, experts, pictures, and other information is fast and easy. Spending the money to travel for seven days with 20 people just doesn’t seem worth it. But in rural Laos, the spread of knowledge and sharing of experiences can’t be taken for granted. That’s why this study tour – and really, all of MK11 – is so important.

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Walking back to our bus from the edge of the Nakhai reservoir, I found myself beside the Ngoy District deputy governor. I asked him what he had understood about hydropower policy before he came.

“I knew something about the policies,” he replied in Lao. “But I wasn’t very clear on them. I didn’t know the details. Now, I have a better, clearer understanding of the policies, of compensation, resettlement.”

“What do you plan to do when you get back to Ngoy District?” I asked.

“I’m going to tell everyone what I understand now,” he said.

The governor wasn’t alone in this. The village heads and district staff were also inspired by what they’d learned over the seven days. The former were anxious to share their newfound knowledge: Sinohydro had a legal obligation to provide them with new houses, support alternative livelihoods, and rebuild their community infrastructure. After returning, Yhoksamay briefed me on the conversations I had missed: “Before, the villagers weren’t as sure they could insist on getting houses and livelihood activities. Now they are confident that they have those rights.”

As for the district staff, “They are very excited now to make up a committee. They have knowledge and experience now and know how to negotiate.” They are planning to have their first meeting in May.

His summary matched what I had felt during the meetings, when questions flowed; during the bus rides, when conversation filled the air; and what I had been able to discern from my own short chats over the course of the trip. The study tour had worked – it had given the participants the knowledge and confidence they had lacked while alone along the Nam Ou, faced with the world’s largest hydropower developer. Villagers know their entitlements, and have newfound confidence to insist on them. And Sinohydro will no longer have a district partner uncertain of its place and overwhelmed by the massive development project in its territory – its new partner is a district sure of its roles and confident of its abilities to carry them out.

As for me, I’ll be taking a longer look before dismissing the next study tour as merely a vacation.

Reid Magdanz is a project assistant for MK11, working at Village Focus International with the support of the Luce Scholars Program. This study tour was conducted from April 21 to April 27, 2013. More pictures of the study tour are available on CPWF’s Flickr page.

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