Life in the shadow of the Mekong dams

Meng Si spoke to the villagers of Xiaohe who lost their land to a hydropower company decades ago and are still waiting for compensation
<p>The villagers of Xiaohe were not resettled, but their lives were still affected by the Manwan dam (Image by International Rivers)</p>

The villagers of Xiaohe were not resettled, but their lives were still affected by the Manwan dam (Image by International Rivers)

This is the second in a two-part special report on the resettlement rights of villagers displaced by dams along the Mekong River. Part one is an analysis of how China’s resettlement policies are playing out on the ground. Part two, below, is an insight into the experiences of one village, Xiaohe, on the upper Mekong.

After decades of controversy over resettlement, China now plans to boost its 
hydropower capacity mainly by building dams on the Mekong and other rivers in southwest China.

When the impact of dam-building on local residents is considered, we often think about those who have to relocate as the waters cover their homes and fields – are they adequately compensated? But others, living beyond the banks of the new reservoir, still lose their land. As they are not relocated they receive less attention, but the dam still changes their lives.

I met some of these people when I happened to stop at the village of Xiaohe , on my way to the Manwan Dam in Yunnan. The Manwan Dam was the first major dam built on the Lancang river (known as the Mekong outside China), with work starting in 1986 and completed in 1995. Xiaohe village was not flooded by the reservoir, but its land was used for the construction of a power station.

He Zhichun’s field was used to build an explosives store. Song Qingyun’s field was used to mix concrete. The 60 households in Xiaohe village lost about 100 mu of land in total.

He Zichun said the government told the villagers the power plant company would only need to use the land temporarily, from 1984 to 1991. During those seven years they would be compensated for lost harvests, and then the land would be returned. But in the end only about half the land was returned.

The power company claims the government has given it the land in perpetuity, said He. But when asked the power plant refused to comment, referring the question to its owner, Huaneng Lancang River Company.

The locals can’t get their land back because 30 years ago their agreement with the government was never put in writing. “At the time we thought we could trust the government,” recalled one villager. Those villagers are now in their sixties and seventies, and are largely uneducated. The confusion over the land just seems like something they can’t do anything about.

Not the government’s problem

Not far downhill and over the river from Xiaohe lie several buildings. The only one occupied is home to He Zhichun’s father – the others are empty storehouses.

He Zhichun has put his father, who is in his seventies, on the land that the power company refuses to return. His father has lived alone there for two years, planting crops around his home. He Zhichun says, “If they come to demand the land back I send them to speak to the government.” The company people have come several times, but the government has never sent anyone.

His family lost four or five mu, which the power company used to build stores for explosives. After seven years the company kept the land to farm pigs, and even when they stopped raising pigs they employed a local to keep watch. When the watchman went home sick He Zhichun took his chance and moved his father into the watchman’s house.

And if the problem isn’t solved, he says he’ll move in himself once his father can no longer live alone.

“The government installed methane gas pipes, dug irrigation channels and built a bridge, and called that compensation,” He said. “But we all think that isn’t enough. The government doesn’t care about us getting our land back.” The villagers want the government to get involved, but the officials who signed deals with the company and the villagers have left, and the current officials won’t take responsibility.

A friend in government told He Zhichun that the land had been signed over to the company in perpetuity, rather than the seven years the villagers were told. The villagers feel cheated. However when I questioned He Zhichun’s friend he said he was unaware of the situation.

Accepting reality

The power company used Song Qingyun’s land for mixing concrete and returned it after seven years, but it couldn’t be used as farmland. “The government promised money to restore the land, but now they’re not interested.” The current officials aren’t interested in oral agreements made in the past, so the locals haven’t been able to get their money.

Song Qingyun gave up waiting and spent 20,000 yuan on restoring the farmland himself – money he had saved while working away for a year. Now he wants to stay at home with his child. But his small piece of land only provides two or three days of work a week, so he decided to restore the land the power company had used. “You earn more money working elsewhere, but you spend more too, so I opted to come back.”

But as deputy village head he still hopes the government will help out. “If we can’t have the land back, we’d like them to build an activity centre for the old folk, and monthly compensation of 60 yuan a month. But we’d rather have the land.”

Yu Xueju married into the village 13 years ago. After the power station took over the land she was left with just 1.3 mu to farm. Her husband was left disabled after a traffic accident on his way home from work at the dam, leaving her to do all the heavy work. The family is in debt after building a house, and even paying school fees is a problem. “There are more people in the village, fewer trees on the hills, less water. You spend over 10 yuan a month on water alone,” Yu said.

This year an unprecedented drought left her worried about the harvest. Her husband was only five when the land was taken over and his parents have passed away, so nobody knows what agreements were made.

When telephoned, the power company switchboard refused to give out any specific phone numbers. The head of the local government office dealing with dam relocations hung up after saying information would be given “at the right time.”

According to Beijing lawyer Xia Jun, there is one possible solution – according to a land management law passed in 1986, temporary assignments of land should not normally last more than two years. Therefore the agreement between the company and the local government may not be official. If the power company does not have legally-recognised proof, it may have to return the land.

But older villagers’ recollections of the deal are getting hazier as time goes on, and things may never be cleared up. Younger villagers don’t remember the actual events, but have grown up with their parents’ stories of injustice.

Years ago the locals of Xiaohe joined with those who had lost their homes to protest outside the power station. But although compensation was paid to people who were relocated, nothing was done for the residents of Xiaohe

Also read: Vietnam demands halt to Mekong dams 
Also read: The fate of people displaced by the Mekong dams 
Also read: The impact of dams on the fisheries of the Mekong