Kongkaew Vonusak smiles when he recalls the arrival of Chinese investors in his tranquil village in northern Laos in 2014. With them came easy money, he said.
The Chinese offered villagers up to $720 per hectare to rent their land, much of it fallow for years, said Kongkaew, 59, the village chief. They wanted to grow bananas on it.
In impoverished Laos, the offer was generous. “They told us the price and asked us if we were happy. We said okay.”
Elsewhere, riverside land with good access roads fetched at least double that sum.
Three years later, the Chinese-driven banana boom has left few locals untouched, but not everyone is smiling.
Experts say the Chinese have brought jobs and higher wages to northern Laos, but have also drenched plantations with pesticides and other chemicals.
Last year, the Lao government banned the opening of new banana plantations after a state-backed institute reported that the intensive use of chemicals had sickened workers and polluted water sources.
China has extolled the benefits of its vision of a modern-day “Silk Road” linking it to the rest of the world – it holds a major summit in Beijing on May 14-15 to promote it.
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