Lessons from Laos


I've been reading back issues of HCN while living and working in Vientiane, Laos. As a native Coloradan, outdoor enthusiast, and anti-corporate child of hippies, I tend to oppose commercial development of public lands and natural resources. However, on a small point, I found myself agreeing with the mining representative in "Hardrock Showdown" (HCN, 11/22/10). Jeff Cornoyer stated that mining in Arizona would be better for the planet than copper mining in Chile or the Congo.

Laos is filled with steep limestone mountains overgrown by tropical greenery. They are great sources of natural resources. Mining, logging, and rubber plantation planting are happening with little or no concern for their environmental consequences, even inside national protected areas. Bribing the right string of officials gives businessmen access to land, where they will likely be completely unregulated. Many companies see it simply as a poor country where a bribe can get you access to very profitable natural resources.

So Mr. Cornoyer is sort of right. When we Westerners refuse to allow our own natural resources to be accessed, the copper for hybrid cars, photovoltaic panels and other gadgets we love will likely come from some place with much less oversight. The people affected may be subsistence farmers who have neither the time, knowledge and experience to resist development, nor the political clout or legal framework to limit its impacts. When we take a NIMBY attitude, we may be hurting poor and powerless people in other parts of the world much more than the corporations we think we are obstructing. That's not responsible citizenship any more than allowing unrestricted development of our own natural spaces would be.

Libby Clarke
Vientiane, Laos

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