Chinese banana plantations bring work and pollution to Laos

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Chinese banana plantations bring work and pollution to Laos

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This is what is happening in Laos, where the Chinese are renting large parcels of land from the locals to grow bananas. It is providing money and employment, but at a heavy cost to the environment. This could also be Cambodia's future.

[Very long read.]
Chinese banana plantations bring work and pollution to Laos
Mark Inkey
14.10.2019
Banana plantations are raising local salaries but the chemicals used are poisoning rivers and land
Image
Ton washes his clothes in a small creek below the plantation (Image: Visarut Sankham/China Dialogue)

Chinese banana plantations first started cropping up about six years ago in Bokeo province, northern Laos, which borders Thailand and Myanmar. Nowadays they cover more than 11,000 hectares, provide US$100 million in annual exports, and make up 95% of Bokeo’s exports, according to a 2017 report by Plan International.

Most Lao banana plantation workers accept their dangerous working conditions because they earn more doing it than other jobs. The landlords renting to the Chinese plantations know they’re associated with pollution, but again, the exchange seems worth it.
Chemical pollution from plantations

Nong’s father-in-law has mixed feelings about the Chinese banana plantations. “They are good because they have created jobs but bad because they use lots of chemicals.”

He explained that the chemicals end up in the rivers and creeks. “Before we could drink the water from the creek and bathe in it, now we cannot, we have to use water from an underground source. There are also far fewer fish because the chemicals have killed them off.”

The government is worried about this too. It commissioned research in 2016 that concluded banana plantations were damaging the environment and workers’ health. It banned new plantations and contract extensions for existing plantations in January 2017.

According to Stuart Ling, an independent researcher in agriculture who has produced reports on banana plantations in Laos for NGOs, the ban was lifted in August or September 2018. “The ban has been rescinded and [the plantations] are meant to be putting in improved management techniques including issuing certificates to say they are complying with the chemical laws.”

He said the government is trying to align the industry with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), a set of rules that promote economic, social and environmental stability, developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“The Chinese government also wants bananas to comply with GAP but it is very hard. The Lao government really has no experience, no means to monitor and inspect on a regular basis,” added Ling.

“It will be a long and slow process, so things haven’t really changed much but there is the intention to change.”

Dangerous working conditions
The banana plantations visited by China Dialogue do not appear to follow GAP standards. They had large amounts of burnt plastic waste melted into the ground. Piles of discarded boxes, rotten bananas, trash and empty chemical bottles were left in areas where bananas are washed, packed and loaded onto trucks.

The discarded chemical bottles only had Chinese instructions on them. They included bottles of chloropyrifos, a toxic chemical that can cause death or serious health problems, including lung cancer. Even at very small doses chloropyrifos can harm the development of foetuses and children. It is also toxic to fish.

Full-time labourers that live on the plantations and look after them are employed for a season of seven to ten months. Known as worker couples they are normally hired in pairs, usually a husband and wife who often bring their children. Usually each couple has to look after 4,000 to 5,000 banana trees on about two to three hectares of land.

“We are not allowed to go home unless someone dies. Anyone who leaves for a week or more without giving notice gets fired,” said one couple.

They receive around US$2,300 for the whole season. About half of that is given to them as an advance at the rate of US$65 every 15 days. The rest is paid in a lump sum after the banana harvest. However, this depends on the amount of bananas the couple produces. If storms destroy the crop before the harvest, workers are often not paid.

One landowner said that last year a woman he knew was looking after banana trees that were blown down by wind just before the harvest. All she was given at the end of her contract was US$13 to get home.

Workers’ accommodation is uncomfortable and very hot. A long shed made from corrugated metal divided up into about six to ten rooms not much bigger than a double bed, one for each worker couple and any children they may have.

Many camps visited by China Dialogue had no toilets or showers. Workers defecate in the forest and bathe in a creek that dries up to a trickle in the hot season and is probably contaminated with agricultural chemicals.

Children under 16 are not supposed to work on the plantations, but no checks seem to be carried out. China Dialogue spoke to a 16-year-old who had been working on banana plantations since he was 14.

Older children might also help in the fields which could be particularly dangerous as agricultural chemicals usually harm children more than adults.
Full article: https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/s ... on-to-Laos
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