Hydropower Development and Statemaking in Laos: Electrification, Livelihood Reconstruction, and Social Relations

Since the Lao government implemented the reforms known as New Economic Mechanism (Konkai Xetthākit Mai) in 1986, foreign direct investments for the construction of hydroelectric facilities have increased significantly and now proliferate. The Lao government is optimistic that hydropower projects can boost the national economy and help to realize its ambition to become “the battery of Asia.” The government also believes that the resettled people will be the ultimate beneficiaries of progress through hydropower development—electrification and infrastructure programs, sustainable livelihood, safer homes, etc.

In view of these economic development processes, I will analyze in my field research how state officials and non-state actors (i.e. project representatives, consultants, independent monitoring agents, etc.) interact in implementing and managing the construction of hydroelectric dams and relocation programs of the Nam Nua 1 Hydropower Project (NNua1)—the latest hydropower development in Northern Laos that has the largest number of displaced people. This research focuses in particular on the social relations as well as everyday experiences of the resettled villagers in the Banmai resettlement—the largest relocation site of the NNua1—with processes of relocation, electrification, and livelihood reconstruction from the perspective of anthropology of the state.

Each key research objective deals with a particular area of the topic. The first objective is to explore the political economy and historical development of hydroelectric projects in Laos, specifically the case of the NNua1 Hydropower Project and its relocation programs. The second objective is to scrutinize the policies, interventions, and new structures introduced and implemented by the Lao state to fulfill the promises of progress through hydropower development. The third objective is to investigate the affinity between electrification and livelihood reconstruction and their impact on the everyday lives and social relationships of the resettled villagers in the Banmai resettlement. The fourth and last objective is to examine the new subjects and subjectivities produced by hydropower development and electrification in Laos. I will analyze, in particular, how the relocation process and the presence of electricity influence the resettled villagers’ views on state and its representations, home, and environment; consumption patterns; feelings of empowerment (or abjection); expectations of modernity; aspirations of progress; and future plans.

The project will rely heavily on qualitative data collection techniques such as ethnography, participant observation, in-depth interviews, and group discussions. These methods are complemented by secondary data collection and supplemented by quantitative surveys. This research will bring fresh insights into the political and economic anthropology of electricity and anthropology of the state by providing an ethnographic and empirical case that analyzes hydropower development as well as statemaking and electrification processes from both above and below.


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