How are people supposed to talk to each other if they don’t speak the same language?
I had my first encounter with this question during the planning meetings for MK11’s consultation workshops in Ngoy district, Luang Prabang province. I was sitting at a table with staff members from Village Focus International (VFI), and partners from the National University of Laos, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Prime Minister’s Office. We were hammering out the questions for the district and village consultations that we planned to conduct. The VFI staff had thought up most of the questions already, but the questions needed to be run by the other project partners, and translated into written Lao.
Sometimes we get the words wrong
We hoped to get the district officials talking about the gaps between hydropower policy and practice in Ngoy district, and how coordination with hydropower projects could be improved. A number of specific questions were drafted for the village consultations, focusing on resettlement and compensation, the impacts on livelihoods, impacts from construction, and grievance and feedback mechanisms.
Every now and again the partners would interject and tell us that a question didn’t make sense; we had to use words that district officials and villagers would understand. One VFI consultant put it succinctly: we have to speak their language.
A few days later I found myself sitting in a van, bound for Luang Prabang, with eight other members of the project team. We would spend the night in Luang Prabang, pick up four provincial officials in the morning, and then drive up Route 13 to the Nam Ou 2 dam construction site.
The plan was to check out the construction site and meet with a Sinohydro representative. Sinohydro is the Chinese dam developer, and according to International Rivers, “the world’s largest dam construction company with a 50% share of the international hydropower market.” The Nam Ou 2 is scheduled for completion in 2016, with an installed capacity of 120MW. The environmental impact assessment states that 24 villages will be affected by the project; some will need to be resettled while others will be affected by minor flooding.
Around 15 minutes after rolling into the construction site, three Sinohydro representatives met us and gave a brief talk on the status of the dam’s construction. The MK11 team members who visited the dam a few months earlier noted that significant progress had been made. There was a camp set up for the workers, who looked to be mostly Chinese, and the dam site was prepped. The air was thick with dust, partly from the large dump trucks that rumbled down the main dirt road, along which the village of Hat Khip was situated.
Following the briefing, we departed from the dam site, with agreement from the Sinohydro representative to attend our district consultation in Nong Khiaw the next morning.
Other times things get lost in translation
I had my second encounter with my initial question at the district consultation. The workshop was conducted all in Lao, and the Sinohydro representative only spoke Chinese. He had a translator with him, but we discovered that her Lao was quite poor. She couldn’t translate the presentations for him, nor could she translate questions from the district officials. And the district officials had a lot of questions; they said that they had not received any information or reports from Sinohydro.
In an interview with one district official, he said that he tried twice on his own to make contact with Sinohydro, and was rebuffed both times. The third time he brought a provincial official with him, but was still ignored.
How are the district officials supposed to talk to Sinohydro if Sinohydro refuses to communicate and doesn’t have a translator fluent in both Chinese and Lao? They are literally not speaking the same language.
Sometimes there are multiple discourses
It’s possible that Sinohydro’s lack of engagement with the district points to a deeper problem rooted in the positions and discourses of the parties. Over the course of the district consultations, the district and provincial officials voiced their concerns on various issues, like social welfare, the number of foreign employees, child nutrition in the villages, and the impacts of the dam on agriculture. At the village consultations it was apparent that the villagers are worried about their livelihoods, agriculture, and maintaining their way of life. Although not explicitly stated by Sinohydro, presumably it cares about keeping construction on schedule and minimizing its costs.
It is true there’s an obvious gap in communication between the various stakeholders, however, they are also all speaking different languages in terms of their interests and positions.
So, how do we all come to speak the same language? MK11 is making a good start by sparking discussion on communication channels and feedback mechanisms with the villages, district and provincial officials, and Sinohydro. But as anybody who has ever tried to learn a new language knows, learning how to speak another language is a long, difficult process. It takes commitment and a desire for understanding.
MK11’s district and village consultations showed an enthusiasm and eagerness to start a discussion. Let the learning begin.
For more photos of the Nam Ou 2 construction site and the district and village consultations, please visit our Flickr site.