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Belt and Road

Chinese investment upheavals anger Laos' indigenous tribes

Rural communities face lifestyle changes as authoritarian state develops

A girl from the Khmu tribe in northern Laos works burned land cleared for crops. (Photo by Robert Bociaga)

VIENTIANE -- Rackety trucks rush across China's border with its backwater neighbor, stirring up clouds of dust and drowning the tweets of tropical birds. Chinese projects to construct roads in one of Asia's poorest countries date back to 1962 when Laos was subject to a proxy war between the global Cold War superpowers. Nowadays, China is its largest foreign investor and aid provider in a series of infrastructure projects, claiming to change local life for better.

But critics have raised serious concerns about the impact of the projects, pointing at their gigantic price tags and environmental issues, among others. Slated to open in December 2021, the China-Laos railway will cost almost $6 billion, 30% of which is to be financed by Laos with loans.

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