Dam Threatens Tribal Culture

Critics say plans to proceed with a China-backed dam project infringe on indigenous customs in Cambodia.
2012-04-06
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stungareng-305.jpg
A Chhorng indigenous village in Koh Kong province.
RFA

Cambodia has announced plans to build a controversial hydroelectric dam in the country’s southwest amidst protests by indigenous groups who say the project will put their livelihood at risk.

Suy Sem, chief of Cambodia’s Industry, Mines and Energy Ministry, told RFA this week that the government has decided to proceed with construction of the Chinese-financed Stung Areng River Dam in Koh Kong province. The Stung Areng Dam will have a production capacity of 100 megawatts when it is completed in 2017, he said.

Sources say construction on the dam will begin next year, displacing several thousand families.

The announcement was met with concern by the indigenous Chhorng population which inhabits three riparian communes alongside the Stung Areng in Thmar Bang district. They claim that the dam construction will destroy their forests, plantations, and ceremonial burial sites, as well as their homes.

Members of the Chhorng have requested that the government reject the dam project, saying that most of their indigenous forests have already been razed through other development projects and that they now fear losing their cultural identity.

Pralay Commune Chief Kim Chhe said his villagers don’t want compensation or relocation packages.

“I don’t want to lose our culture. If officials come to conduct a study for the dam, we ask that they please keep our sacred forest as well as the graveyard forest. We want to keep those traditional beliefs,” he said.

Villagers said officials had once conducted a study to build the dam in 2007, but there had been no new developments on the project until the latest government announcement to proceed.

Dam concerns

Villager representative Korng Chhoy said members of the indigenous community are concerned they will be forced to move, adding that tribal peoples are unaccustomed to life on the small plots of land typically provided by the government for relocation because traditionally they inhabit the forest.

“As we speak, the villagers are gathering resin and other things from the forest,” he said.

“If they are asked to relocate they will lose everything, including their houses and rice fields.”

Korng Chhoy said the community’s ancestors had been living on the land around the Stung Areng since the Angkor Wat period of the 12th century.

“We are thankful for development, but there are two kinds of development: If the government brings tears, we don’t want it. We want a smiling development. We don’t want to become slaves through development,” he said.

Environmentalists also voiced their concerns over the possible effects on the area’s rare wildlife, such as the Mountain Crocodile and Dragonfish.

Forestry official and Mountain Crocodile expert Sorn Piseth said that the government would have to relocate crocodiles from the area if the dam is to proceed.

“The crocodiles will be affected. If we don’t help them, they will become extinct,” he said.

Appeal to stop

And opposition party lawmaker Son Chhay said dam construction in the area would have a far-reaching impact, damaging an ecosystem that he called “unique to Asia.”

“I am appealing to the government to stop the project immediately,” he said, adding that several species of rare wildlife living in the area would be put at risk.

Son Chhay said he would resubmit a request to Heng Samrin, president of Cambodia’s National Assembly, or parliament, demanding that Prime Minister Hun Sen clarify details of the dam project.

He said he will personally travel to Stung Areng to inspect the dam site in mid-April.

Chinese companies are currently building two other controversial dams in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province—the Ta Tai Hydroelectric Dam and the Russie Chhrum Krom Dam.

The Ta Tai Dam will generate around 246 megawatts of electricity, while the Russie Chhrum Krom Dam will have a capacity of 338 megawatts. Both are expected to be completed in 2015.

Dam projects in Cambodia are often the source of regional unrest, as residents of nearby riparian communities face forced relocations and the loss of the natural resources they rely on.

In March, more than 500 ethnic minority residents of river communities in Cambodia’s Stung Treng and Ratanakiri provinces held protests against the construction of a Vietnamese-led Lower Se San 2 Hydroelectric Dam that will relocate them from their ancestral land.

As many as 2,000 people—most of whom are members of ethnic minority groups—are facing relocation because of the project, and environmental activists say nearly 80,000 people will lose access to fish whose migratory paths will be blocked by the dam.

Reported by Sek Bandit for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.