Cambodia’s energy minister allayed concerns in parliament over inadequate compensation offered to villagers who face relocation for a proposed China-backed dam on a Mekong River tributary, saying the government has allocated to villagers more than four times the area taken over for the project.
Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem was summoned to the National Assembly to answer questions on government policy related to the 400 megawatt Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam, which would be constructed along the Sesan River in northeast Cambodia’s Stung Treng province.
Villagers campaigning against the dam have expressed concern about compensation for being displaced by the project, which they say would also destroy protected forest areas, kill rare fish, and negatively impact local ethnic minority culture.
National Assembly spokesperson Chheang Von said that lawmakers on the whole accepted Suy Sem’s two-and-a-half hour explanation of plans to compensate villagers, the dam’s construction process and its impact on the environment.
But he cautioned that the dam’s developers should stick to their proposed plans.
“We can accept this explanation, as long as he promises that he will work with the companies to implement the plan correctly,” Chheang Von told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that lawmakers would also “monitor” the government project.
“The villagers who agreed to be relocated have made a big sacrifice and we must repay them,” he said.
Studies have suggested the Lower Sesan 2 project in Stung Treng could displace 5,000 people and adversely affect 100,000 more through a more than 9 percent drop in fish stocks in the Mekong Basin.
Suy Sem’s explanation to parliament marked the first time the National Assembly, which opposition lawmakers have boycotted since disputed elections in July last year, has summoned a government minister to answer questions on national policy.
During the session, Suy Sem acknowledged that the dam would impact the environment, but assured lawmakers that studies would be done ahead of its construction.
The minister pledged to provide relocated villagers with 1,000 square meters (10,760 square feet) of land to build new homes and 5 hectares (12 acres) of land for each family to grow crops.
He declined to comment on potential deforestation that could arise from the project, saying the issue was not within his ministry’s purview.
Speaking to reporters after the Assembly session, Suy Sem said that the expected benefits of the dam outweigh the likely impact of its construction.
He added that around 910 hectares (2,250 acres) of villagers’ land will be affected by the project, but the government has reserved about 4,060 hectares (10,030 acres) as compensation.
But despite Suy Sem’s reassurances that the compensation needs of relocated villagers would be met, many of those who will be displaced by the dam’s constructions have continued to hold out and refuse government offers.
Some of them wanted to remain on their traditional land while others felt that the offered land was less valuable.
Last month, villagers walked out of negotiations with the government’s compensation committee, saying their demands had been ignored.
A villager representative named Ly Bek told RFA that the construction would directly affect indigenous lands that have long been used for farming and traditional burial grounds, and that residents would refuse to leave.
“They can’t leave their ancestors land, so there is no solution,” he said.
A village official named Sek Mekong said that residents had refused government offers since December because terms were “vague” and compensation “fell short of market price.”
He said that if the government continues to push the same policy, he would refuse to participate in relocation talks.
Call for halt
In December, villagers living along Mekong River tributaries in northeastern Cambodia protested in front of the Chinese Embassy in the capital Phnom Penh calling on the authorities to scrap three proposed China-backed dam projects, including the Lower Sesan 2, citing environmental and other concerns.
Residents of riparian communities along the Sesan, Sekong and Srepok rivers presented a petition to the embassy detailing the plight of the 75,000 people they say could be directly affected by the proposed dams.
The petition called on Chinese Ambassador Bu Jianguo to stop Chinese companies Hydrolancang International Energy and Hounan Group from building the Lower Sesan 2, which is to be constructed in conjunction with Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group.
The petition called on the Chinese authorities to also scrap two proposed, 300 megawatt dams in Ratanakiri—the Lower Sesan 3 dam to be developed by China’s Sinohydro Resources and the Srepok 3 dam undertaken by Huadian Hong Kong Co. Ltd.
Land-clearing preparations for the Lower Sesan 2, which were started in March last year, were suspended by the government in October, but Suy Sem’s visit to parliament suggests the project may go forward.
Reported by Yeang Socheameta and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.