At the end of March 2014 the Lao PDR government will consider a proposal to build a special economic zone slated for tourism development and other unspecified commercial uses in Siphandone, one of the world’s most pristine and biodiverse areas. The SEZ will showcase a casino located less than one kilometer from the famed Khone Falls, the largest in Southeast Asia.
“The Siphandone area is set to become a more sought after tourism destination with many more activities to experience,” remarked Buasone Vongsongkhone, Deputy Governor of Laos’ southern Champassak province on Monday, March 17 after a meeting to discuss the proposal.
Vongsongkhone said the plans for the SEZ will include a casino and other facilities in keeping up with developing tourism trends in the Siphandone and Khone Falls area while protecting the environment.
“At the meeting we discussed how to regulate the casino to ensure the zone has proper security.”
What Vongsongkhone did not discuss was the impact of the new SEZ on the relatively untouched ecosystem of the Siphandone area. Siphandone, translated as “four thousand islands” is where the Mekong River fans out into a waterfall and islet ridden expanse more than 15 kilometers wide. The sparsely populated area has been described as an environmental oasis and is home to numerous native fish and bird species. The Khone falls area is the perhaps the last habitat where endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin can be found in the wild.
Laos’ growing reputation of holding some of our world’s last untouched natural areas and idyllic vacation spots has brought increases in international tourists to Siphandone area. With the increase in tourism, the need for regulation and protection is obvious, but is marking a zone for economic development first and environmental protection second a sustainable approach or is it just another way for local Lao officials and outside investors to gain quick wealth through the exploitation of Laos’ abundance of resources?
Last week in an article in the Vientiane Times, the official English language outlet for Laos’ state controlled media reported “the government attaches great importance to developing SEZs to boost the country’s growth, which is crucial to lifting people out of poverty and enabling Laos to graduate from the list of least developed countries by 2020.”
The track record for SEZs in Laos, often dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese investment, is sketchy at best. In Vientiane, construction of the That Luang Marsh SEZ (yet to begin commercial activities) has negatively impacted the local urban environment. The natural wetland filters and holds the capital city’s waste water acting as a terminus of the city’s century-old waste canal system; many of these canals are now blocked by construction. Much of the That Luang wetland areas has been filled in and long-time residents have noticed an average rise in temperatures as water is removed from the ecosystem.
In Laos’ northern Bokeo province, the Golden Triangle SEZ dominated by the Chinese owned King Roman Casino complex has a seedy reputation as a conduit for money laundering from China and zone of human trafficking. The SEZ has scarred the scenic views of the Golden Triangle area, also known for its tourism, with open quarry mining and industrial development.
To make matters worse, the Siphandone area is slated for the construction of the 260 megawatt Don Sahong dam located on the only of Siphandone’s Mekong channels that allows for the passage of hundreds of species of migratory fish. In September 2013, the Lao PDR government notified the Mekong River Commission that the Don Sahong dam project would begin construction in 2014 despite years of protest and opposition by local and international environmental NGOs.
Eco-tourism opportunities such as river cruises, dolphin sighting tours, village homestays, and fishing demonstrations have brought sustainable sources of income to local communities in the Siphandone area for years. Investors interested in building large resorts and casino complexes will likely be majority Chinese and Vietnamese taking more than they provide while leaving a stained and irreversible mark on one of the Earth’s most scenic spots.