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Story Publication logo July 22, 2015

Cambodian Dam Project May Threaten People and Endangered Species


Image by Kalyanee Mam. Cambodia, 2014.

A revolution is awakening in Cambodia—with protests led by a monk who is speaking out against the...

Media file: screen_shot_2015-07-22_at_3.57.33_pm.png
Image by Kalyanee Mam. Cambodia, 2014.

Southwestern Cambodia's Areng Valley is home to the Chong people, who have lived in the area for centuries, and to over 31 endangered species. Villagers have recently teamed up with Buddhist monks from Phnom Penh in an effort to protect the valley from a hydroelectric dam project. Filmmaker Kalyanee Mam highlights the region's significance to one family—and what it might mean to lose their home—in her short documentary Fight for Areng Valley. I spoke with Mam about her film.

How did you first learn about the Areng Valley?

I traveled to Areng Valley for the first time in March of last year with a plan to film a group of monks that were working with the Areng community to protest the proposed dam. The short would be featured on the New York Times Op-Docs series. However, during this trip, what I discovered was that the real fight was with the people whose lives, living so harmoniously and connected to nature, were the true embodiment of not only Buddhism but also the spirituality that I was seeking. I first met Reem Sav See at a meeting with the monks about the proposed hydroelectric dam. I was immediately struck by her presence and her confidence when she spoke, all the while cradling a baby in her arms. As I pointed the camera in her direction, she whispered to a neighbor sitting next to her, "I wish someone would come and tell our story." Although she didn't express this to me, I could feel that she was aiming for me to hear her wish. After the meeting, I approached Reem Sav See and told her that I would help tell her story and asked if she would be willing for me to film her. My crew and I spent the next two days filming her and her husband fishing and foraging for mushrooms. As we floated on a boat along the river, See breastfeeding her daughter and her husband rowing behind her, she said this to me:

"When I live with nature, we share only one life. Nature and I are like one. Everything that I have is a gift from nature. Not even the most valuable gold and diamonds can compare with the value of this nature or the love and peace that we have. If I am abandoned, nature will also be forsaken."

At that moment I understood why I was there. I also feel most at home with nature. I wonder sometimes if it's in my blood and whether it's because I was born from an ancestry that forages and values food from nature that I feel so connected to the land and the forest. But I realize this feeling is inside all of us. We are all born from nature. It is our disconnection from nature that has made us feel so lost.

I want to listen and understand how See and her family have learned to live in harmony with the natural world around them. I want to understand how they perceive of this natural world and what we can learn from this. See cannot imagine her existence without nature anymore than she can imagine nature existing without her. I want to share her stories with the world and especially [with] Cambodia's younger generation. Perhaps if we all felt so strongly and so connected we could not imagine destroying this natural world and home around us.

What is the current status of the dam project?

A decision on whether or not to build the dam has been put on hold until 2018, after the next national elections. This is a strategic move to calm protests around the dam and perhaps even divert attention for the next few years away from the project. However, even if the dam is not built, Areng Valley, like other parts of Cambodia, will continue to be targeted for logging and mining. The government is currently building a road that looks to be completed very soon and that will certainly provide logging trucks with unhindered access to the valley. And once the valley is open it will also become vulnerable to land speculation and settlement by outsiders seeking new opportunities. Unless efforts are made to preserve and protect this area as a national treasure, Areng Valley will certainly change for the worse.

So far the most effective proponent and fighter of Areng Valley has been [the grassroots organization] Mother Nature and, most notably, Alex Gonzales-Davidson, who was recently deported from Cambodia for his outspoken activism against the dam and the Cambodian government. The day after his deportation Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened the use of rockets in Areng Valley. In the same breath, Hun Sen announced he would delay making a decision on the dam until 2018, after the next national elections.

If the dam were to be built, where would the Chong people go?

Although there is hope the dam project may not go through—two other Chinese firms have already pulled out of the project for both economic and environmental reasons—threats to the valley and forests, from logging [to] mining, remain. If the dam [were] built, there were plans previously to forcibly resettle the Areng community within the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, a vital elephant corridor, causing further encroachment on an area internationally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot. However, even if the dam doesn't go through, pressures from logging, mining, land speculation, and settlement by outsiders will either push the communities further into protected areas or leave them with no option but to leave, as the sources of their livelihood—the forests, river, and their ancestral farmland—will be completely destroyed.

Can you tell me more about the family you feature in the film?

Reem Sav See is a fierce and beautiful young woman with long, dark hair, an infectious smile, and a brilliant courage that shines through her being. See loves to tell stories and this love [that began when she was] a young child listening to village elders recount old folktales and stories about animals, spirits, and ghosts that inhabit the forests surrounding their village. In these stories, the animals speak and share their wisdom about the forests, the spirits hover and protect them from harm, and the ghosts instill a healthy amount of fear to prevent humans from becoming too arrogant. Seated on the dirt floor, See would listen to these stories under the shade of an arching tree, or at night in bed, lulled to sleep by the soft voice of her grandmother.

During my time with See and her family I felt so deeply and completely connected to them. The way they see and connect with the world is the way I see it, with a profound love and understanding for nature and all of its gifts. Their lives are rooted and grounded in the land and the forests and so they in turn are rooted and grounded in their sense of themselves. We spoke without walls, barriers, constraints, or even ego because we had nothing to hide from each other, nothing to gain, only so much to learn and share. I observed their interactions with their neighbors and how everyone gave to each other, not only gifts of food, but of time, spent with no purpose but to enjoy each other's company.

After spending so much time with See and her family, I have decided to tell a fuller and deeper story. What originally started out as a short about a fight against a dam is now becoming a feature-length film, entitled The Fire and the Bird's Nest, about Reem Sav See and her journey to reclaim the mythical and magical stories of her ancestors, to uncover the natural and spiritual heritage of her people, and to fight to protect her homeland.

Are the monks from Phnom Penh still active in the fight to save the valley?

The monks from Phnom Penh are still active in the fight to save the valley, as well as other land rights movements throughout Cambodia and the protection of garment factory workers' rights in Phnom Penh. The monks believe they cannot rest and pray in the pagoda while the people and nature cry for help. Iconic images of their involvement and their fight have become a strong symbol for the nation's struggles. No one can stand by and just watch, not even the monks. We must all unite to fight injustice and the destruction of our cultural and natural heritage.

What could someone do if they wanted to become more involved in this issue?

There is a national grassroots environmental movement taking place in Cambodia and Mother Nature, a local grassroots organization that has been committed to protecting the sacred Cardamom Mountains of southwest Cambodia and the rights of indigenous communities in this area, is standing at the helm. Through direct action and transformative media this movement will unite the struggles of communities whose livelihoods and culture have been affected by large-scale and unchecked development projects. In doing so, these affected communities will gain the power to influence public policy and public opinion and to effectively stall or paralyze some of the most destructive projects in Cambodia's history. In the last two years or so, social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube have played a fundamental role in spreading democratic values and engaging a large part of the population—especially the young and urban middle class—in social and environmental issues that were once previously ignored. This movement will further harness the power of media and social media to connect urban and rural communities and inspire these communities to action.

If you want to be part of this movement either by donating funds to the cause or by actively participating in our direct action and media campaign, please contact Mother Nature. If you want to screen Fight for Areng Valley or A River Changes Course at your school or with your group or organization, please contact our outreach coordinator, Jennifer Ka ([email protected]).


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