Photo Essays | Economy | Environment | Southeast Asia

Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

A look at dam, Belt and Road, and SEZ projects in “the battery of Southeast Asia.”

By Scott Ezell for
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Pillars for the Belt and Road Initiative’s high-speed railway coming south from Boten, at the China-Laos border. The line is expected to open in 2021.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Construction site for the BRI railway, with the Chinese border in the distance.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Railway pillars under construction as hills burn in the background.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

BRI railway pillars.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Construction site for the Oudomxay station of the BRI high-speed railway.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

The Namtha dam, built by a Chinese company to export electricity to Thailand.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

The geometric, rectilinear grid of the dam imposed on formerly forested valley walls.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

The back side of the Namtha dam.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

The control station and reservoir of the dam. Eight thousand people from 34 villages were displaced by the dam, and moved to pre-fab relocation settlements such as Hat Muok, built to house 5,000 villagers. Compensation was reported to be about $100 per household.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Not all extractive industries in Laos are foreign concessions. This open-pit coal mine at the edge of the Nam Ha National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area is owned and operated by BMT, a Lao company.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

The Golden Triangle SEZ in 2015. At the time the Kings Romans Casino seemed to be a silly toy-like architecture imposed on this landscape, the golden bauble of the casino hall like a fat minaret rising above the dun exhausted landscape, which had been converted to banana plantations.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

The new Kings Romans casino tower. Note the original bauble-like casino buildings in the lower left, which seem quaint and insignificant compared to the current casino tower. Just as in 2015, the interior of the casino was dull and stale, the “gamblers” mostly proxies wearing headsets and playing remotely for bettors in China. Even the roulette wheel was virtual, a cartoon spinning on a screen.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Hills at the edge of the SEZ are raked away to provide sand and stone to construction projects.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Fifteen-story tenement towers, construction cranes, and water buffalo in an undeveloped lot at the edge of the SEZ. According to a recent RFA article, the Lao government “plans to build 41 special and specific economic zones, mostly in border areas and remote parts of the country.”

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Two of four Rolls Royces in the Kings Romans Casino parking lot. Laos’ per capita income in 2017 was $2,330, according to the World Bank, and is undoubtedly less than that in this marginal border zone. A new Rolls Royce Phantom costs an average of $600,000, not including delivery to Laos.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

A tiger in the SEZ “zoo.” The two dozen tigers in a row of crude cages were captive-bred in southern Laos, and are believed to be for sale for consumption as exotic wildlife cuisine. Another area of the “zoo” held Asian black bears obese as fatted pigs, panting in the heat in their own excrement, a cage full of macaques, and a pen of actual reindeer.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

A slogan on a tiger cage at the SEZ “zoo” in Lao, English, and Chinese.

Credit: Scott Ezell
Scorched Earth Development in Northern Laos

Backhoes carry on the unending march of construction.

Credit: Scott Ezell

In April 2019 I traveled through northwest Laos to check in on the current state of several cross-border development projects, including the now-completed Namtha dam, the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ), and the construction of a high-speed railway from the Chinese border to Vientiane, part of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Since my last visit to this area three years before, the exponential acceleration of industrial development had become a de facto scorched earth policy. Entire mountains were raked away, and rectilinear geometries were imposed upon this land of jungled hills. The new railway was gashed through the landscape, covering villages with dust, drilling tunnels through mountains, and erecting obelisk-like structures to raise train tracks above the earth. The SEZ, which had been a garish but slightly ridiculous bubble of development cash on the Mekong, had now conflagrated into a hustling clot of tenement blocks, with a 30-story casino tower of glass and gold at the center, crude metal cages still holding tigers and bears in a “zoo”-cum-3D menu for wildlife cuisine.

April is in the region’s dry season, which has traditionally been used by farmers to burn rice chaff before the arrival of monsoon rains, and by hill peoples to clear new land for swidden fields. But in recent years the dry months have been used to burn vast areas of forest for a variety of economic motives, including the collection of “natural” mushrooms for international sale, and to clear land for plantation agriculture. Now, as hills, jungles, and rivers were bermed and beveled into concrete grids, forests rose into the sky as ash.

No one seems to be able to put the brakes on this system of rapacious extraction, carried out in collusion between the government and multinational corporations. Sombath Somphone, an internationally-recognized community development worker who advocated for village water rights, was disappeared by Lao plainclothes police in Vientiane in 2012. His abduction was caught on video and has been posted online, but this public evidence of government gangsterism has not slowed investment in Laos by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, or Western corporations from countries such as France and Norway.

This photo essay begins with the BRI railway construction at the China-Lao border, and follows Route 3 southwest past the Namtha dam to the Golden Triangle SEZ, where the Mekong forms the Lao-Thai border. (I previously documented the Namtha before and during the dam construction in a photo essay for The Diplomat in 2016.) All along the road, the air was funereal, with smoke billowing up from crackling fires at the verge of the disappearing jungle. The gauzy atmosphere gave these landscapes an eerie, ghostly quality, that blurred and dulled my efforts at photography—but, as an anatomy of scorched-earth development in this corner of Laos, maybe the shroud of smoke-haze lends an appropriate veil to the following images.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Scott Ezell is an American poet and multi-genre artist with a background in indigenous cultures and Asian border areas.