President Choummaly Sayasone.
The president said he is very concerned about environmental issues in Laos, including the recent flooding, as natural disasters and excessive resource extraction are severely impacting on the livelihoods of Lao people.
Speaking at the first new government meeting in Vientiane earlier this week, the president said the country must be wary of diminishing its mining resources. “If we exhaust our mineral resources, it will be a sin against our children,” he said.
“The projects that we have already approved also need to be reviewed to assess their effectiveness. Those in breach of the law or found to be ineffective need to be brought to a halt.”
Mr Choummaly said investment in the mining industry needs to be beneficial to the country. “If we only get minor benefits from a mining project, we should not do it.”
Foreign businesspeople are also investing heavily in rubber plantations, many Lao people end up being labourers for the projects.
“I want the government to review the effectiveness of rubber plantation projects. If possible, we should stop approving these kinds of projects,” he said. “I think that there will not be enough Lao labourers to tap the rubber if we continue to approve rubber plantations at the current rate, unless we import labourers from other countries.”
The president said there are many problems with rubber plantations, particularly in relation to allocating leasehold land to foreign investors, which creates conflict with local villagers. Authorities are having trouble dealing with villagers being displaced from their traditional homes and then resettled in other areas.
“I want the government to stop the approval of rubber plantations and encourage villagers to grow crops which have a more immediate benefit,” Mr Choummaly said.
He said rubber is an industrial tree that takes seven years to tap and uses up valuable cultivatable land but does not feed anyone. Crops like sweetcorn, cassava and sugar can be more profitable for villagers as they can be harvested every season, giving villagers a more regular and reliable income.
“We want the government to review land usage in the country, to ensure Lao villagers have land to grow crops and help themselves out of poverty.”
The president said he is also deeply concerned about the logging industry. The government has already banned the exportation of timber, but illegal logging continues to be a problem. He said that any timber logged in Laos should be milled and processed here, so that the country reaps the full benefits of its own resources rather than seeing them flow overseas.
He said there also needs to be a review of policies in relation to the importation of secondhand vehicles, as the number of vehicles on the roads has now exceeded the road capacity of Laos, creating traffic jams and air pollution in the capital. “Should we stop importing these kinds of vehicles?” he asked the new government.
He said the Ministry of Industry and Commerce needs to increase its efforts to inspect vehicle imports and try to stop people taking advantage of this process.
“Secondhand vehicles are flooding into our country, and big roads have become small due to the rising number of vehicles travelling on them,” he said. “In the next few years, we may not have space to park them all. The more cars we have means the more fuel we have to import and we will have to pay for that.”