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Michael Kouraba headshot

Right Action: Blocking a Dam in Cambodia's Sacred Forest


In another example of the collateral damage caused by the relentless march of economic development, a sacred Cambodian forest and its residents are fighting for their very survival against the Cambodian government and the largest hydropower company in China.

The fight is over a hydroelectric dam being planned for the Cheay Areng region at the base of Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, just one piece of a larger government plan to build a network of 17 dams across the country.  Four have been built already, all in supposedly unoccupied forests.  This project, however, is different, as the valley is home to more than 1,600 mainly indigenous people.  If the dam were completed, almost 2,000 hectares of land belonging to the indigenous Khmer Daeum would flood, a territory which includes 500 hectares of sacred land in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest.

The Areng dam project has been fraught from the beginning.  The first company on the project, China Southern Power Grid, pulled out due to environmental concerns; next up was China Guodian Corp., which abandoned the project citing questions about its economic viability.  Sinohydro, China's largest hydropower company and the world’s biggest dam producer, took over from there but has thus far been stymied by protests from the local Chong people and some Buddhists from Cambodia's capital.


In November 2013, a group of Buddhist monks -- part of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ), a movement started in the wake of Cambodia’s contested 2013 national election -- traveled from the capital, Phnom Penh, to help save the endangered forest from Sinohydro's proposed dam.  The group of 40 monks walked, drove and swam the 150 or so miles to the Areng valley, carrying 80 meters of saffron-colored cloth to "bless" the forest's threatened trees.

A few months after their initial journey, the IMNSJ monks returned to the valley and joined a group of roughly 150 villagers who had launched their own protest movement aimed at blocking Sinohydro's access to the valley.  In early March, the protesters gathered at the storage place for Sinohydro's machinery and succeeded in preventing it from leaving the land.  The protests are being led by the Chong people, who are considered "original Khmers" and have lived in the Areng valley for over 600 years.  They make their living by growing basic crops, foraging, and fishing in the valley's streams and river.  Thus far, the group has been successful at blocking Sinohydro's access to the valley, and so the dam project remains stalled.  However, if the government decides to pursue construction in earnest, it is not clear what impact the protests will have.

What is clear is that the local people, those most affected by construction, do not want the dam and certainly do not want to be forced from their land.  Last week, the New York Times "Op-Doc" series featured a six-minute film on this subject.  Watching the brief documentary, one can feel the desperation of the Chong people.  One woman in the film states:  "The government claims to bring progress.  However, ... if we are relocated, we will suffer beyond compare."  Another rejects the notion of "compensation,” stating, "Even if they piled money 1 meter above my head, I wouldn't want their Chinese money.  I want to stay in my village."


The impacts of damming the Stung Cheay Areng would be severe.  For one, more than 1,500 people would have to be relocated, and thus far none have been told where their future homes would be.  At first, the potentially displaced were slated to be moved to a relocation site called Veal Thom.  This plan, however, was ultimately rejected after an outcry by conservation groups hoping to protect an elephant migration route that it would have severed by the relocation.  No alternative has yet been put forward.

Beyond those living in the valley, thousands more would be negatively impacted by the dam, which would "block the flow of the river and destroy downstream habitats for wild fish that are crucial  to the local economy,” according to the NGO, International Rivers, which is campaigning against the building of the dam.  The dam would also upset the local ecology.  The Areng valley, known to conservationists as a "biodiversity jewel" of Southeast Asia, is home to more than 30 endangered animal species, all of which would be threatened by the dam and the subsequent flooding.  Chief among the threatened species is the endangered Siamese Crocodile, already more than 99 percent extinct and to which the Areng River currently offers the most secure breeding site.  (The crocodiles are also believed to be guardian spirits.)  Other threatened species include clouded leopards, tigers, elephants, pileated gibbons and the Asian arowana fish.

Worse still is the fact that the potential harm caused by damming the Areng would hardly be offset by corresponding benefits to the Cambodian economy.  While blackouts are relatively common in Cambodia, hydropower has been called a “dinosaur technology” because it produces insufficient electricity in the dry season.  In fact, in a report commissioned by the Cambodian government, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency concluded that the nearly $340 million the dam project could cost would result in a high cost of electricity per unit compared with other dams, and provide only a “modest” 108 megawatt output.

Sadly, there isn't much left of Cambodia's forests, and the Cardamom remains one of the few "holdouts" as Cambodia continues its race to log, mine, deforest and develop.  According to the United Nations, since the 1980s, Cambodia has lost 84 percent of its primary forests.  The World Bank reports that, by 2010, the percentage of forested land in Cambodia had fallen to 57 percent, down from 73 percent in 1990, the result of illegal logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, land grabs, uncoordinated mining and other unsustainable development tactics.

That the protests have thus far stalled Sinohydro is heartening, but to date the Cambodian government hasn’t really flexed its muscles.  As the award-winning filmmaker who created the Times Op-Doc on the subject, Kalyanee Mam, put it:

I fear this David and Goliath battle will end tragically, unless significant pressure is placed on Sinohydro and the Cambodian government to either abandon the project or make good-faith efforts to involve threatened communities and conservation groups in the planning process. While development is essential to the future of Cambodia, the destruction of national treasures like the Areng valley will make that future far bleaker.  May the country’s leaders choose their priorities wisely.

I sure couldn’t have summed it up any better.

Image credit: Flickr/mossaiq

Michael Kourabas headshotMichael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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