Vientiane Times, June 11, 2013
Grandpa Thep Somphamith is 83 years old but he still looks and feels as strong as he did in his 60s. At the newly resettled Natoryai village in Xayaboury province. The revolutionary veteran shows Deputy Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Mr Savankhone Razmountry and the visiting media delegation how he maintains a healthy lifestyle and explains the ways in which he is adjusting to his new living conditions and environment.
Grandpa Thep is one of the 350 people who have been relocated from Houaysouy village, which lies 30 km away from the provincial capital. The resettlement is part of the construction project of the US$3.5 billion Xayaboury dam on the Mekong River.
“This is my new wife; we just got married four months ago,” grandpa told the visitors as he sought to convince us that he is still strong. His wife, a 51 year old woman, Ms Thon Chansouk, confirms that her husband can work just as hard as the younger men.
Grandpa Thep lost his first wife several years ago and he decided to get married again as he needed someone to share his time with as he approaches the twilight of his life. While introducing his wife, he led the visitors to inspect his house, vegetable plantation and livestock. He will grow vegetables and is raising animals for sale and his own consumption.
In a yard at the gable end of his house, he keeps frogs and chickens for his family and to sell at the market. He is also growing a variety of herbs such as lemongrass and a number of vegetables, which he says betters his health. “Eating fish and frogs is good for your health,” he says. “I rarely eat pork and beef.”
In late 2012, the government made the decision to begin construction of the hydropower project on the Mekong mainstream. It is part of efforts to generate revenue for poverty reduction programmes so the country can move off the list of least developed nations by 2020.
The project has the obligation to provide compensation to the affected villagers and ensure that they live better lives. Grandpa Thep says that he is happy with the newly resettled village as it is located near to urban areas where he finds it easier to access electricity, water supplies, health care facilities and education services, which create a bright future for his grandchildren.
“The new village is 10 times better than the old one,” he says, adding that he no longer worries about his health problems as the medical centre is located a few kilometres away from his house. He also feels more comfortable in the new village and he owns a television and a refrigerator, which make his life more convenient. “In the old village, it gets dark when the sun disappears. Now we see the light despite the sunset,” he says.
Despite accessing better public infrastructure, the villagers of Natoryai are facing challenges adjusting in this new living environment. They now have to produce food for their own consumption and sale, which is different from the past when they collected food from the forest and river as generations have done before.
Xayaboury district governor, Ms Bounphack Inthapanya says that it was government policy to create better opportunities for the villagers and develop sustainable livelihoods so as they can recognise their bright future. With financial support from Xayaboury dam project, the district authorities provided the relocated families with farmland of 0.75 hectares per family so they can begin a rubber plantation, and access a financial seeding fund and training on how to grow and raise livestock for sale.
The project developer has committed to purchasing the agricultural products which will be produced by the village, as the demand for food on the construction site will increase.
Currently, there are more than 5,000 workers in the project zone. Ms Van Xayalath is one of the villagers who found success in the new resettlement area. She decided to spend her compensation money to open a small shop, selling a variety of goods such as canned food and drinks. She says that she has no idea how to manage the business but she hopes to learn how to run the shop from others and receive encouragement from district authorities. She says the job can be sustainable despite facing challenges on how to run it professionally.
She mentioned that some villagers are now finding different types of jobs such as raising pigs, fish and frogs for sale, while others have decided to grow rubber trees so they can generate sustainable incomes in future as the price of the rubber is increasing due to global demand.
Natoryai village chief, Mr Lang Inthavong said that most of the villagers are adjusting to the new living environment and that they now understand that relying on natural resources was never sustainable.
The villagers are working very hard to adjust themselves to this different landscape after leaving their traditional home. They have begun to cultivate crops on the farmland and are raising livestock for themselves, while younger people have been offered jobs at the dam project site. He adds that one of the good things which villagers have found advantage in is that they can now send their children to schools.
The villagers have expressed thanks to the government and the Xayaboury dam project developers who have provided them with fair compensation and opportunities, adding that they would not see a prosperous future if they were not relocated. They now have access to basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity supplies, health centres, education services and job opportunities, which their age-old home could not offer them.