Nature was born to rescue humanity, just as people were born to protect nature. Without nature we cannot survive.” – Venerable But Buntenh
After journeying seven hours on a bus from the capital city of Phnom Penh, Venerable But Buntenh and a band of 16 young, social-media savvy dissident monks pile onto the back of a pick-up truck and wind their way on a bumpy dirt road to Areng Valley, nestled in the Cardamom Mountain range in southwest Cambodia. The young monks arm themselves with cameras and video recorders, snapping shots along the way, their bright saffron robes flapping in the wind.
They are on a mission to stop the imminent construction of the Stung Cheay Areng dam, a project the government of Cambodian has contracted to Sinohydro Corporation, China’s largest hydropower company.
“We traveled from the city of Phnom Penh to Koh Kong Province in a journey to rescue [our natural resources]. Our first struggle is to prevent the Chinese company from kicking the villagers off their land," said Venerable But Buntenh, their leader. "Our second struggle is to fight to protect nature, especially the Areng River, which is overflowing with the vitality of nature. We come here to protect, because nature is an essential part of our lives.”
The proposed 108-megawatt dam is estimated to flood at least 26,000 acres of land, including land considered sacred to the ethnic Chong people who have lived in the valley for over 600 years. The dam would also threaten the future of one of Cambodia’s remaining pristine natural habitats for 31 endangered species, including the Siamese crocodile.
Villagers, many of whom consider the area their ancestral home, also realize the proposed project will threaten their land, and their livelihood – in addition to destroying the environment on which their survival depends. About 1,500 of them will be displaced as a result of the dam.
The monks march to a village where a meeting of 100 villagers is convened. Venerable But Buntenh stands and addresses the crowd seated on thick slabs of wood on the dirt floor. He speaks about the villagers, about nature, and the disaster that would result if the hydro dam project goes forward. He then speaks about his journey and the monks’ journey and why they have come to help protect the valley.
“As monks, we were taught to protect the forest and not destroy it. And when we see that they have come to destroy the Areng River and forests, we realize there will no longer be any forests left for the spirits to live. This is why we have blessed the trees with our saffron robes. To protect the tree and provide a peaceful dwelling for the spirits,” he said.
The villagers respond bravely. A young woman named Reem Sav See, a member of the Chong ethnic group, cries out. Her eyes are tired, her lips are trembling. She cradles her young daughter in her arms. She doesn’t want the dam to come. She doesn’t want to be relocated.
With the blessing of the villagers, and carrying bundles of saffron cloth, the monks continue their march along the dirt road, past villages, over bridges and streams and into a remote forest where tall virgin trees grow. In the forest, they tie the saffron cloth around the tree trunks, all the while chanting a centuries-old Buddhist chant still relevant today. It is a chant of compassion, pity, and love and of a divinity that does not exist in a temple but in the forests that the monks and the villagers both call their home.