Development in them thar hills (is being the backdoor to China unquestionably a good thing?)
A couple of newswire pieces to comment on, the first, from a hotel point of view is a good thing - not only are we already an hour from the most picturesque gateway to the World Heritage site of Luang Prabang - the two day boat trip down the Mekong - the same gateway is set to become the back door to Yunnan, one of China's least discovered provinces, running all the way up to the Naxi 'Shangri-la' of Li Jiang and the Tibetan border.
Laos' powerful neighbours China and Thailand have built a highway between Chiang Khong and Luang Namtha - not yet open but "coming soon" - to "contribute to the economic development of Northern Laos" (one only has to read the Lonely Planet Thorntree website to see what form of development the Chinese section of the road has bought to the eco-tourism haven of Luang Namtha - worrying reports of floods caused by construction; deforestation for rubber for the big, suddenly accessible, market to the North; super Casinos and even the kidnapping of a prominent eco-tourism advocate). It is one of my favourite towns and I suggest, if you've ever had the urge, to get up there and see it now.
I feel the second sentence talking of facilitating links between (though the ADB says with) China and Thailand may be slightly higher on the agenda. The road will also make access easier for our guests to visit Luang Namtha and Muang Singh as well as China but at what cost? True I've not found anyone who liked the old 4WD track (130km took 10 hours at least) apart from me, but then I've always liked 4WD tracks and inaccessibility has always been the friend of Asian forests and Asian wildlife.
Build a road and the logging trucks come, the speculators come, business men local or foreign buy forest land for knock down prices - or not at all - plant cash crops and the land becomes theirs, the truckers need to eat and bushmeat is cheap and saleable by locals and don't think I need point out the other economic 'benefit' to families with daughters.
I am not anti-progress, I happily live in Thailand and take advantage of her excellent transport and communications system, her years of development (and very little natural forest), I am also an hotelier and am itching to help my guests further explore Yunnan from the wild elephants in Jing Hong right up to the Tibetan border. I am not in a position to preach against something that will make the lives of many Laos people much easier, but I do see that, if not implemented carefully, the transition of local people from a centuries-old way of life to the modern world in a matter of four years (when I first 4WD'd the road - only four years ago, I'm not an old hand! - village kids would run from the car, now they hold out their hand for money) can spell disaster for the poorer, voiceless locals and their forests and the wildlife contained within.
This is, after all, a conservation blog - and, to be honest, I don't see any care being taken to conserve.
Laos First Highway To Open This Year
VIENTIANE, May 14 (Bernama) -- Construction of Laos's first highway will soon be completed, contributing to its economic development in northern Laos and facilitating economic, and commercial exchanges with neighbour countries of China and Thailand.
According to Lao news agency (KPL) on Monday, the 228-kilometre highway, a portion of a road running from Kunming of China through Lao northern provinces of Luang Namtha and Bokeo to Thailand, will be opened to traffic this year after three years' of construction.
The project was divided into three packages whereby the first received US$28 million from the Chinese Government for the building of a 67.7 kilometre portion, which will be put into use on May 23.
The second package provides for the building of 77 kilometre with a US$16.5 loan from the Asian Development Bank while the rest received 823 million Thai bath (US$26 million) for the building of 84 kilometres.
...the link to the second piece is tenuous, I guess, and if I'm honest, really only got in because I was amused by the mis-translation (apologies to An Dien) of the title - surely that would be a tourist attraction - though the Bokeo forest through which the above mentioned road passes is home to several troupes of gibbons from a species once thought extinct (as well as tiger, leopards and intriguing tales of rhinos).
If we allow the forest to be cut down, hunted out, before it her depths are fully studied, who's to say there aren't the South East Asian versions of the dodo up there?
It sounds as though it may be too late for the Vietnam's Central Highlands but perhaps not for Laos' Northern forests.
Elephants could join dodos in Vietnam central highlands
Thanh Nien Daily
There are only a few hundred elephants left in the area compared with thousands a century ago, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources reports.
Dak Lak province, once a pachyderm haven, now has just 50 elephants, mostly in captivity.
Residents point out that the relentless illegal logging has robbed the elephants of their habitat and left them in a permanent state of agitation.
Besides, the animals are chained, preventing them from mating, spelling further doom for their numbers. They are not in great health to start with since their owners work them into the ground.
Residents in Gia Lai province's Nhon Hoa village are nostalgic about the elephants' heyday around 40 years ago when people were proud about the number of elephants.
The disappearance of the elephants has badly affected elephant-related cultural festivals in the region, they grumble.
The Gia Lai and Dak Lak provincial administrations have begun to act to save the elephants from extinction.
They have called for using In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and offering elephants private spaces to mate.
A Gia Lai-based tourism company has bought three elephants for VND50 million (US$3,100) and uses them to entertain tourists as a last-ditch effort to conserve the pachyderm.
But a long-term plan to protect and preserve elephants is yet to be chalked out.
Reported by Thien Truc - Translated by An Dien