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Story Publication logo July 30, 2014

A Threat to Cambodia’s Sacred Forests

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Image by Kalyanee Mam. Cambodia, 2014.
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The Cambodian government intends to build a network of 17 dams across Cambodia, hoping this will...

Media file: bb011801_monks_march_evening.jpg
‘A Threat to Cambodia’s Sacred Forests,’ NYT Op-Doc by Kalyanee Mam. Cambodia, 2014.

The accompanying video was published as part of The New York Times' Op-Docs series.

In southwest Cambodia, at the foot of the Cardamom Mountains, is a single dirt road that meanders through the heart of the pristine Areng Valley. Ten miles down this road, a group of villagers has set up an encampment to stop a hydroelectric dam project that they fear will destroy their forests, livelihood and heritage.

"We've come to protect our land for our future grandchildren," one woman proclaimed. And we're afraid all our spirit forests will be lost."

The Chong people, who are considered Khmer Daem (or original Khmers), have lived in this valley for over 600 years. They grow rice, forage for roots and mushrooms, and fish in the streams and river. A group of young monks traveled over 150 miles from Phnom Penh, the capital, to help them in their campaign to protect the forest, which they consider sacred.

The Cambodian government intends to build a network of 17 dams, hoping that they will generate enough electricity to meet domestic demand, reduce energy costs and export surplus energy abroad. The Stung Chay Areng dam would be the sixth dam the Cambodian government plans to build in Southwest Cambodia, to help power commercial and industrial development in the area. This goal of transforming Cambodia into the power plant of Southeast Asia may promise economic gain, but also entails significant costs.

The Stung Cheay Areng dam would be built by Sinohydro, China's largest hydropower company. It would flood more than 26,000 acres – displacing over 1,500 people. The dam would threaten the habitats of 31 endangered animals. Construction would also invite anarchic logging and poaching of wildlife that could extend deep into the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, an area internationally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot.

Conservation experts also question the project's economic viability citing high production costs and a very low rate of economic return. According to Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director for International Rivers, "The dam will also only operate at 46% during the dry season, precisely, when Cambodia most needs the electricity. With such significant negative impacts," she adds, "one can only question why this project continues to be pursued." And like most major dams being built in Cambodia and backed by Chinese investment, the Areng dam will be owned and operated by Sinohydro and then transferred back to the Cambodian government after 40 years, exactly when the dam is expected to be inoperable due to excessive sedimentation.

However, this dam can still be stopped. Two Chinese companies have already pulled out of the project, citing it as economically unviable. If Sinohydro is held accountable to World Bank environmental standards, which it has adopted, it might pull out, too.

The people of Areng Valley are taking matters into their own hands and responding with force, blocking Sinohydro's access into the valley. Once bulldozers, excavators and other heavy machinery enter the valley, it will be impossible to throw the company out.

Sinohydro and the Cambodian government are currently assessing the viability of the dam and have met with families in Areng Valley to share a relocation plan that may move them to a site within the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, causing further encroachment and poaching within protected forestland. However, the villagers are adamant in their protest.
"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."

As a Cambodian-American, I am deeply concerned for the future of the Chong and their forest. 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.

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