In a remote valley in southwest Cambodia, an indigenous group fights to protect its homes from the looming construction of a hydroelectric dam. 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, villagers have set up an encampment to stop a hydroelectric dam project that they fear will destroy their forests, livelihood and heritage.
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. In March, 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. This goal of transforming Cambodia into the power plant of Southeast Asia may promise economic gain, but as this Op-Doc video shows, it also entails significant costs.
The Areng dam would be built by Sinohydro, China’s largest hydropower company. It would flood at least 26,000 acres – displacing over 1,500 people (whom the government plans to relocate to an undetermined area). The area is recognized as being rich in biodiversity; the dam would threaten the habitats of 31 endangered animals.
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. Sinohydro and the Cambodian government are currently assessing the viability of the dam; results are expected later this year.
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.