Chinese-owned banana plantations expand in Laos despite lingering environmental and health concerns

The Laotian government lifted its ban on banana plantations last year but health and environmental problems caused by agricultural chemicals persist.

By Oliver Ward

In 2017, the Lao government ordered the closure of the country’s Chinese-owned banana farms following reports of pollution and workers falling ill after being exposed to dangerous chemicals. Firms already operating in the country were allowed to stay open until their contracts expired. The ban prohibited the signing of new contracts with Chinese banana firms.

The ban has since been lifted but environmental and health concerns remain. To fully unlock the economic benefits of the Laotian banana trade, the government must provide firm oversight and further industry management efforts.

Banana plantations were, and remain, a major health and environmental scourge

In the early 2000s, China sought to enhance its food security and deepen its economic ties to its ASEAN neighbours as part of its ‘Going Out’ initiative. As part of the program, Chinese capital and agricultural technology were made available to Southeast Asian nations with the view that they would increase commercial agricultural exports to China.

The Laotian government welcomed the establishment of Chinese-owned banana plantations along its Northern border. It saw an opportunity for economic development in disadvantaged rural communities. It was also drawn to the idea of offsetting Thai and Vietnamese capital and influence in its agriculture industry. 

Between 2011 and 2017, the industry ballooned to cover more than 11,000 hectares, offering many rural families seasonal work on the plantations. The prosperity afforded families more stability and educational opportunities.

“I migrated to work in banana plantations for four seasons now [sic] in order to send my children to school and buy rice,” one mother from Oudomsay told Plant international.

A banana plantation in Luong Namtha Province.
Photo: Prince Roy

However, the plantations were both a blessing and a curse. Pesticides, fungicides and hormones used to treat the crops contaminated local water sources. Creeks and streams which the local populations relied on for food and water became polluted, killing off local fish stocks.

Workers responsible for spraying the crops also suffered health complications as a result of chemical exposure. 63% of plantation workers fell ill over a six-month period. Many suffered from headaches, dizzy spells, facial numbness, or found blood in their urine. Pregnant women were among the most at risk, with some chemicals inducing early labour, leading to premature childbirths or foetal deformities.

The ban hurt Laotian exports

The Lao authorities soon took steps to shutter the banana plantations. The ban in 2017 was designed to stop the environmental destruction and health damage caused by the industry. However, it also took its toll on Laotian exports.

Between 2017 and 2018, the value of Laos’ banana exports fell from US$168 million to US$112 million. In Bokeo province, one of the most affected regions, banana exports fell by more than 180% during the first nine months of 2018 compared to the same period the previous year.  

Chinese-owned banana plantations are back but concerns remain

In late 2018, the Laotian government buckled and lifted the ban. Banana prices in China have been rising due to heightened demand outstripping diminished supply. Bananas were tipped to become Laos’ top agricultural export for 2019.

The government told plantation owners that they could expand operations and renew contracts providing their operations met the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). Plantation owners were expected to issue certificates to prove they were in compliance with the UN’s regulations on chemical use in agriculture.

However, a recent report from China Dialogue has revealed that many of the environmental and health concerns that plagued the industry in 2017 remain. They visited several banana plantations and found evidence of plastic burning and empty chemical bottles littering areas where bananas are washed and packed. Among the empty vessels were bottles of chloropyrifos, a chemical which causes lung cancer.

Without running water, many of the plantation’s workers were forced to defecate outside in the wooded areas. They used water sources for bathing despite concerns they were contaminated with chemical runoff from the crops. None of the plantations appeared to meet GAP standards.

Local communities need the government to intervene on their behalf

The government gave the industry the green light to expand without providing an adequate safety net for local communities. Stuart Ling, an independent agricultural researcher, told China Dialogue, “the Lao government really has no experience, no means to monitor and inspect on a regular basis.”

In recent years, the provincial agencies responsible for regulating chemical use, land use and worker rights have been occupied with registering new plantations, leaving few resources to go after environmental offenders.

Until the government can establish protection mechanisms, including due processes to punish those that violate GAP standards and endanger workers and ecosystems, it should proceed with caution. Intention alone is not good enough.

Local communities, when confronted with the choice of forgoing the economic benefits of working on banana plantations or risking their own health and that of their families in pursuit of a better life will choose the latter.

A plantation worker from Oudomsay told Plant International in 2016, “even though we risk exposure to chemicals, tending bananas is a means for rural people who have no other choices to escape poverty.” She described how in two seasons working at a plantation she was able to save enough money to begin building a house for her family.

A lucrative industry that can afford to pay workers a competitive daily rate will have no shortage of willing and capable employees. It will, therefore, require government intervention to protect communities.

Unfettered industry growth will bring an economic boon for local communities struggling in Laos’ agricultural heartland. Closing plantations is not the answer. But nor is the pursuit of economic growth at all costs.