Border closures threaten Laos’s banana industry, a major source of employment

Growers in Laos were forced to give away or destroy hundreds of tons of bananas intended for export to China when a renewed coronavirus surge closed the border, the growers told RFA.

A truck driver from China last week tested positive after returning home through the Mohan-Boten gate in Laos’ northwestern province of Luang Namtha, prompting authorities to temporarily close the point most often used to transport bananas from Laos to China.

Exporters also attempted to send the bananas to China via Vietnam, but a COVID surge there closed borders as well.

“China won’t allow us to enter,” a banana farmer from the northern province of Oudomxay told RFA’s Lao Service.

“We threw away more than 100 tons of bananas from Oudomxay. Normally it takes two to three days for the bananas to get from Oudomxay to China. If we send them from through the border gate in Vietnam, and then on a boat to China, it takes about three to four days, but we cannot enter Vietnam either,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Vietnam shut down its border with Laos, an official in the province of Savannakhet, told RFA.

“If it were up to us, we would allow them to transport in and out, as long as they follow the rules,” the official said. “But we don’t understand why Vietnam won’t allow them to enter.”

Farmers scrambled to give away their bananas before they rotted, but much of their product ended up being destroyed on site.

“There are so many — maybe two or three truckloads of bananas — that we couldn’t send out,” a Savanakhet farmer told RFA.

“Around 200 to 300 boxes that we couldn’t ship had to be destroyed last week,” the farmer said.

The border closures have left many smaller farmers on the brink of financial ruin, a recipient of free bananas told RFA.

Large banana operations have also suffered huge losses, but these farms were able to recoup some of the loss by charging the recipients of the free bananas for shipping.

“It depends on the farm owner how much they can give to an individual. If we ask for five bunches, they will give it to us, but we have to pay for transport,” the banana receiver said.

“The others don’t give them for free. They sell it cheaply, at a price lower than market price,” the source said.

Most of the banana farms in Laos are owned by Chinese companies and are situated near the Chinese border in northern Laos. But Chinese investors are moving into the central and southern parts of the country year by year.

“The areas for banana plantations in Laos are not fixed and fluctuate year to year. In some years we have more, and in others we have less,” an official from the Agriculture and Forestry Department told RFA.

“Before there were a lot in the northern part of Laos, but now there are plantations as far away as Borikhamxay [in the central region] and Saravane [in the deep south],” the official said.

The Vientiane Times reported this week that many banana companies would likely be forced to close if the Mohan-Boten border gate remain closed for three months.

Banana farming is a major source of employment in rural Laos. But illnesses and deaths have long been reported among Lao workers exposed to chemicals on foreign-owned banana farms. Chemical run-off from the farms has also polluted many of the country’s waterways, killing fish and fouling drinking water.

Many in Laos are also concerned about growing Chinese influence as a result of massive investment in hydropower dams and other infrastructure projects under Beijing’s $1.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.

China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner, after Thailand.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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