Lee Talbot’s long association with Laos

Lee Talbot, Med 57, has had a long association with Laos, one of the 134 countries which he has visited for environmental issues. His first Laotian visit was in 1955 on an The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conservation survey.

In the 1960s he visited Laos several times in connection with environmental assessments of proposed dams. Then, in 1966 he was appointed by the World Bank and the Lao Government to a three-man International Panel of Environmental and Social Experts (POE) for the proposed Nam Theun II (NT2) development project. POEs, which Lee has served on elsewhere in Asia and Africa, are created by the World Bank to provide independent advice and guidance on the environmental and social dimensions of major projects.

The NT2 project area extends from the Vietnam border on the crest of the Annamite Mountains with peaks over 8,000 feet elevation, down to under 600 feet elevation at the Mekong River on the border with Thailand.  The project includes a dam on the Nam Theun river creating a large shallow reservoir on the Nakai plateau at about 1,700 feet on the western foot of the Annamites; a hydro-power plant that empties the water from the turbines into a different river; the resettlement of about 5,000 villagers from the reservoir area; and multipurpose development for around 150,000 villagers down to the Mekong, involving such things as agriculture, fisheries, education, health, electricity, and banking.

On his first POE visit early in 1997 Lee found that the watershed for the proposed reservoir was virtually unknown.  Westerners had only visited a small part of the nearly Delaware-sized area.  Extending from the Nakai plateau up to the Annamites crest, the watershed was a densely forested roadless area so rugged that the Ho Chi Minh trails (carrying men and equipment from North Vietnam to the south during the Vietnam war) went around it rather than through it.  Driven in part by the need to gather information to conserve the area, and in part by the chance to explore a truly unknown area, Lee set out to explore it river basin by river basin.  Since 1997 at least one of his twice yearly visits to Laos has involved exploring part of the watershed, usually being dropped by helicopter at the top and walking and rafting down, or walking up river basins or escarpments that are too rugged for a helicopter drop.

Marty Talbot, FN 04 and 2013 Lowell Thomas Awardee, has visited Laos on several occasions, and joined Lee on rugged Flag expeditions to totally unexplored and unoccupied areas in 2007 and 2011.

The area is of globally important biological and cultural diversity with well over 400 species of birds, many animals including 5 species of larger mammals new to science within the past 20 years, abundant and little catalogued trees and other plants, including a new type of forest found by the Talbots, and some 5,000 scattered people representing over 10 ethnic groups, three of which are new to science.

Each visit Lee reports to the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Ministers with recommendations on the project as a whole, including conservation of the watershed.  The watershed now has protected status and a new government authority to conserve it.

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