|Muong Lay Town in Dien Bien Province resettled nearly 3,600 families in 2009 and 2010, paving the way for the Son La Hydro-power Plant. Town leaders are looking at ways to stabilise lives of new settlers who used to rely only on growing rice. — VNS Photo Ngoc Duy
by Thu Huong Le
DIEN BIEN-SON LA — As one drives closer to the centre of Muong Lay Town, about 110km from Dien Bien Phu City, the once idyllic village now looks like a major construction site, with excavators, trucks and containers clearly visible.
But roads and bridges make this isolated mountain town feel strangely urban. Groups of kids burst out from a nearby local school, heading home in an area where rows of wooden, stilt-houses line up so neatly, and so close to one another.
Formerly known as Lai Chau, the town of 11,650 residents is nestled in a valley carved from spectacular mountains by the Da River. Nearly 3,600 families were resettled there in 2009 and 2010, paving the way for the Son La Hydropower Plant, the largest dam in Southeast Asia, which became fully operational last December.
Three years after the town was moved to above the water-level, Tu Ba Minh, chairman of Muong Lay People's Committee, said it had become such a successful model for the resettling process that Government and ministerial officials often went there during field trips.
As much as the town went through a make-over, work remained to done to resettle those who used to rely on 300ha of rice paddies, now two-thirds flooded.
Dieu Van Sieng, 82, was one. Busy sharpening the bamboo sticks used for caging the family's few chooks, Sieng seems clear-minded for his age. The four-member family moved to their resettlement home in Doi village, Na Lay ward in 2010.
They were raising a few poultry, a pig and keeping a small patch for growing vegetables. His grown-up children occasionally worked away on temporary construction projects.
Once they owned nearly 1,000sq.m of rice paddies. All their compensation money went on building their new house and other miscellany during the first few years resettling.
"It's better here as far as the new roads and new home are concerned but we can't grow our own food."
Besides compensation, the 3,600 households were entitled to a combined US$10.6 million in financial support from the Government for resettlement. But town leaders still have not found a stable production model, especially for agriculture-based households.
"Without land, what else can they do? Their lives were tied to the rice paddies for generations," said Do Thi Luyen, deputy head of the Management Board for Displacement and Resettlement of Muong Lay.
Luyen said the town was working on setting aside 37ha of newly reclaimed land this month for about 700 households to restart their production. "It's not easy to find new production land, considering the rough terrain here," she said.
Most agriculture-based households still relied partially on subsidised rice provisions, savings from their compensation money, growing corn and cassava and participating in some vocational training exercises in sewing or tourism. A few had succeeded in cultivating mushrooms.
Luyen admitted it was difficult to convince the agriculture-based households to switch to other sectors due to a lack of funding designated solely for production support, and the town had been so busy moving residents and resettling them in past years that training had been left behind.
Dieu Thi Phanh, a 46-year-old resettled resident of Nghe Tong Village, said the town's plan to give new production land was welcomed but it was about 5-6km from their resettled homes.
"And it will take several crop seasons before it will become fertile to the previous level," she said.
So she was hoping to raise some pigs after attending training but there were no pigs to practise on. "I can't afford to buy new breeds and cattle feed. I hope the Government will further support us in husbandry because animals are quite expensive here since Muong Lay is so far from trading areas."
Lo Ngoc On, deputy chairman of the Son La Management Board for Displacement and Resettlement, shared the view. Even though it was ahead of Dien Bien Province by several years of resettlement works, Son La still hadn't finished stabilising works.
Son La completed relocating 12,584 households to 237 resettled locations in 2010, which had the largest number of resettled households among the three provinces affected by Son La dam.
"After completing most of the infrastructure works, the focus now is on creating jobs for locals and helping them rely on other trades rather than just rice growing," On said.
In many of the resettled districts such as Song Ma, Mai Son and Thuan Chau, people have started growing sugarcane, tea, coffee and raising fish, but in some parts of Quynh Nhai District where households refused to move outside the flooded areas and only moved their homes higher, life remains difficult because there is not enough land to grow anything, according to On.
Despite the favourable compensation policies of the Government for resettled residents in the three provinces, he said money for production support was still low. Son La also suggested to the Government to extend for another year the rice support programme.
"Giving them rice is just a short-term solution. We need to give them a fishing rod instead of the fish," he said. "We estimate that each household receives about VND16-17 million ($760-810) and that's enough to buy a calf only, considering all the rising costs."
Five years ago, Lo Thi Nhiu, 32, and her family were relocated to La Sang Village, Chieng An Ward, one of the eight resettled locations in Son La City. Like other resettled residents, the first year the family stayed in a temporary tent. Her spacious stilt-house was built using compensation money, the rest she used to buy a sow and 800 coffee plants.
The coffee has not ripened yet, at least until October. So she expects the family could get at least a stable source of income by then.
"In the past we could catch fish in the river and find other types of plants up in the forest," she said.
For now, Son La is planning to finish investment in infrastructure in all resettlement locations within this year and is working on finalising a project to fix the infrastructure that has degraded and to support production works and generate employment.
Pac Ma Commune, another resettlement location in Son La City, seemed so stark and quiet on a recent visit. A group of males were gathering in front of a chess board.
"We don't have any husked rice left in the house," said 58-year-old Ha Van Hoc of Pac Ma Village. "But our difficulties are necessary to make way for the country's electricity source. I'm just hoping that the water would not be on and off in the future." — VNS