The Areng Valley in southwest Cambodia has been home to the Chong indigenous people for more than 600 years. The area is also home to elephants, pileated gibbons, clouded leopards, and is one of the most important breeding sites for the endangered Siamese crocodile. But a proposed dam threatens the river, the forests and its inhabitants.
In March 2014, villagers, environmentalists and monks set up a protest camp to stop the dam builders from entering the valley. But in September, police arrested 11 environmental activists and took them to Koh Kong, the provincial capital.
The activists were released them after questioning, but the Royal Cambodian Army took over the protest camp.
A Chinese company, Sinohydro Resources, has the concession to build the dam. According to International Rivers,
China is offering to build revenue-generating hydropower projects and other energy-related infrastructure for Cambodia in exchange for a large future share in the country’s currently untapped natural resources, especially oil and gas.
If built, the reservoir behind the dam would flood the habitat of 31 endangered species. More than 1,500 people would be evicted from their homes.
The dam would destroy downstream fish habitats and impact the livelihoods of thousands of people. Fish form an important part of the local economy.
Sinohydro Resources is the third Chinese company to be involved in the project. In 2006, China Southern Power Grid signed an agreement with the Cambodian government to carry out a feasibility study. In 2010, China Guodian Corporation signed another agreement after China Southern Power Grid pulled out of the project.
In 2013, China Guodian Corporation pulled out, stating that the project was “economically unviable”.
One possible explanation for Sinohydro Resources’ interest in the dam was revealed by the Phnom Penh Post. Cambodian People’s Party senator Lao Meng Khin and his wife, Choeung Sopheap, are listed as third-party governors of Sinohydro (Cambodia) United Ltd.
According to the company’s registration papers, dated 4 April 2006, the firm is a local “affiliate” of Beijing-based Sinohydro Corp.
Lao Meng Khin is the owner of Shukaku Inc, the company behind the Beoung Kak Lake development in Phnom Penh, which resulted in the forcible eviction of more than 1,500 families.
Choeung Sopheap is the owner of the infamous Pheapimex group, which is linked to some of the most destructive logging operations in Cambodia. Pheapimex is also behind a series of massive land grabs, including a 300,000 hectare area slated to be cleared and converted to eucalyptus plantations.
Dam construction would involve building roads to the construction site, opening up areas of the Cardamom Protected Forest to loggers. Although logging is illegal in the protected area, valuable rosewood timber could easily be mixed with timber from the reservoir area.
Earlier this year, Kalyanee Mam, a Cambodian-US film maker visited the Areng Valley with a film crew. One of the villagers told her,
“Even if they piled money one meter above my head, I don’t want their Chinese money. I want to stay in my village. Even with all this money, I could only spend it in this life. I wouldn’t be able to pass it on to my grandchildren. I just want my village and my land for the future of my grandchildren.”
Another film maker, Rob Harbinson, also travelled to the Areng Valley earlier this year. His film “Defenders of the Spirit Forest” documents the villagers’ opposition to the dam and exposes how Fauna and Flora International, instead of opposing the dam, are attempting to relocate Siamese crocodiles from the river – against the wishes of the communities living there, to whom the crocodiles are sacred.
You can join the more than 90,000 people who have signed on to Rainforest Rescue’s petition to stop the dam, here.
In one of the videos, a villager explains why the dam should not be built and the villagers’ environment should be preserved:
“It’s priceless, we have nature, jungles, rivers with fish in them… we don’t need money, all we need to do is put our net in the river for a short time, and we can have enough fish to eat. If we need vegetables we go into the forests and take what we need for cooking.”
The current status of the dam is not clear. At the beginning of October 2014, opposition politician Sam Rainsy announced that Prime Minister Hun Sen had told him that the decision to build the dam had been postponed. But the Minister of Mines and Energy says that the dam will be finished by 2020.
PHOTO Credit: “A Threat to Cambodia’s Sacred Forests“, by Kalyanee Mam.