WWF is now weighing in as the voice of the Irrawaddy dolphin and I am impressed to hear that they are taking up their former position of advocacy, rather than more recent position of diplomacy. This is not sarcasm. Laos PDR's decision to go ahead with the Malaysians to begin construction on the Don Sahong Dam, which I wrote briefly about yesterday, is stirring up controversy in international news. I would argue that the repercussions are far worse for aquatic systems, and in turn terrestrial systems, than just the dolphin. The controversy in this Daily Telegraph article, which International Rivers Network is recirculating, is centered on the 5 remaining dolphins that live in the waters near 4,000 Islands. Someone might ask, what do 5 dolphins matter to a developing country's need for electricity and the need, for Laos in particular, to exploit one of its major natural resources, the Mekong River, in order to provide better economic possibilities for its 6 million people?
Laos has a point, but isn't there another way?
Laos is on the UN's Least Developed Countries list. There are issues of malnutrition, illiteracy, and disease throughout the country. The culture of prostitution and exploitation is bleeding over the border from Thailand. Drug trafficking still plagues much of the Northern and Western portions of the country. However, has anyone sat down and tried to determine the dollars that could be gained from ecotourism - 5 remaining dolphins could be a huge draw - people love dolphins! - compared with the ultimate profit from constructing another hydropower dam within its borders? Is this project like the Xayaburi Dam, 80% generated electricity to be sold across the border to Thailand and sold back to Laos from Thailand in another region for inflated prices? Is Laos being exploited by energy hungry neighbors selling them on the idea of improved ecological conditions from a dam?
Success from cashing in on ecotourism?
Countries such as Costa Rica and Belize have relatively small populations, almost 5 million and less than 400,000 respectively, and huge natural resources. At some point each nations' history, the decision was made to cash in on tourists who want to come to experience the natural beauty, rather than sell it once and then have to look for the next natural resource opportunity - eventually running out presumably, of things like jaguar - comparable to dolphin as "charismatic megafauna". Perhaps Laos could compare its situation with countries that have similar populations - as in the case of Costa Rica, rather than comparing to its immediate neighbors with booming populations - Vietnam has an estimated 90,000 people, or aggressive economies, like Thailand.
Tourist demographic needs to change:
Unfortunately, most of the tourists that frequent Laos, and Southeast Asia in general, flock because it is so very cheap. This attracts a specific kind of tourist. You might not want to read this, but let's be honest about many (not all!) of the tourists in Southeast Asia. The ones who are tight with money, who like to party, who are not terribly respectful of the local culture and customs (spring break behavior)...These are the students, gap year kids, recent conscripts who finished their duty. Then there are tourists who go to Southeast Asia to solicit prostitutes, drugs, and anonymity. I call these folks the second chancers - mostly men of nondescript age or character. This everyone sees, but very few people really want to point out or tell their compatriots to stop exploiting people for entertainment and go back to Europe, North America, Japan, or Australia.
If Laos could lead the region in attracting another type of tourist, moving away from catering to partiers and shoestring backpackers (never mind the criminals and perverts), to tourists who are socially responsible and culturally respectful, tourists interested to experience fascinating culture, history, pristine environments, such as Laos has in the North, or kayak with the 5 remaining Irrawaddy dolphins, such as Laos has in the South, the price tag could change, could jump, and the environment can be conserved. Perhaps.
Perhaps with some sound economic advice about markets, investments, and returns for countries like Laos (it can work!)- instead of some short-term returns advice from those who would like to take their resources and run - the dolphins can continue to dance in cool Mekong waters near sleepy islands and tremendous waterfalls.