Contesting Southern Real Estate Capital in the Peri-Urban Wetlands of Vientiane, Laos

Authors: Miles Kenney-Lazar*, National University of Singapore, Kelly Wanjing Chen, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Topics: Political Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Economic Geography
Keywords: China, Speculative Urbanism, Urban Wetland Development, Laos, Land Politics, South-South Investment
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Maryland B, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper examines the uneven and dynamic land politics that have saturated the piecemeal transformation of a peri-urban wetland bordering the downtown core of Vientiane, Laos’s national capital, into a built environment of residential and commercial real estate. Since the late 2000s, the That Luang Marsh has been the target of projects financed by Chinese and Lao capital, fulfilling the Lao government’s strategy of “Turning Land into Capital”. We take a longitudinal perspective to investigate how each project’s geopolitical and political economic relations with the state, land acquisition mechanisms, and financing strategies intersect with local resistance, shaping their development trajectory. The initial concession of the wetland to a Chinese developer for the creation of a special economic zone (SEZ) sparked a rare outcry from the Lao public, leading to a reduction of the project size and scope that customary land users felt incapable of contesting. Yet, the project now lies dormant and incomplete due to its inability to attract real estate investors to its urban vision. In contrast, the later entrance of a Lao road construction company into the wetland area and its appropriation of adjacent lands led to less visible, but pervasive forms of grassroots contestation. Such politics have not prevented the company from speculating on roadside land, but may complicate these efforts later on. By juxtaposing the capacity of Chinese and Lao projects to materialize in the face of local political contestation, the paper highlights the grounded dimensions of entangled South-South geopolitical, economic, and political relations.

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