The unfolding story of local resistance in the Areng Valley starts with an all-too-familiar predicament: for the sake of “national development” and economic progress, the Cambodian government has steadfastly pursued plans – without prior public consultation – to build a Chinese-backed hydropower dam in an area known for its rich biodiversity and indigenous communities.
But contrary to how one might normally expect such a story to transpire, there is an important twist in this one. Faced with irrevocable ecological degradation, loss of traditional livelihoods, and the disruption of indigenous culture, local villagers supported by grassroots NGOs and environmental groups are refusing to back down from their fight to save the Areng.
The remote Areng Valley is located in the 400,000-hectare Central Cardamoms Protected Forest, one the country’s last pristine natural forests in Koh Kong province. The valley is home to an ethnic Chong community that has resided in the area for centuries. It also contains the habitats of rare and endangered animal and fish species, including the Asian Arowana, Asian Elephant and Siamese Crocodile. The latter in particular is classified as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, which estimates there to be only 100-300 remaining in the Cambodian wilderness.
According to Toby Eastoe, Landscape Manager at Conservation International, the Cambodian government under Prime Minister Hun Sen is considering at least eleven dams in the Cardamoms. Initial proposals for the Cheay Areng dam first surfaced in late 2006, when China Southern Power Grid (CSG) – one of China’s major power grid enterprises – signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cambodian Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME) to conduct a feasibility study for the dam.
However, by 2008 when word got out about CSG’s feasibility study, the proposed scheme began to come under public fire, as conservation groups like U.K.-based Fauna and Flora International raised serious concerns over the Cheay Areng dam’s adverse ecological impacts.
Amid growing controversy, CSG decided to withdraw from the project, citing environmental impact concerns. CSG would be succeeded, however, by another of China’s largest power generation corporations: China Guodian. The company signed an memorandum of understanding with the Cambodian government in November 2010 to complete the feasibility study for the Cheay Areng dam, alarming anti-dam activists in the process. And yet history would repeat itself: China Guodian soon pulled out upon realizing that the scheme was commercially unviable. The proposed dam, to be constructed at an approximate cost of $400 million, was capable of generating only 108MW of electricity.
It remains a wonder as to why Sinohydro Resources Ltd., a holding company of China’s largest dam-builder Sinohydro Group, would later decide to take on the project in early 2014*.
“The root of the problem,” explains Eastoe, “is that 80 percent of Cambodia lacks a stable supply of electricity, yet it needs electricity to develop.” This concern is reflected in the country’s latest Power Development Plan (1999-2016), which prioritizes the development of Cambodia’s hydropower capacity to meet growing electrification needs.
However, to some, justifying the Cheay Areng dam with references to national development sounds more like a cover-up for exploitation of the Areng Valley’s natural resources.
“As Chinese dam builders and its Cambodian subcontracted companies to date have been able to operate on a wave of lawlessness and impunity, the Cheay Areng Dam may simply be an excuse to open up the Areng Valley to immense logging and wildlife poaching,” writes Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director at the California-based International Rivers.
Indeed, dam sites often serve as a hub for illicit activities, as “legal” reservoir clearings provide easy access to luxury timber (often destined for the Chinese market) and pave the way for illegal mining. To Opposition MP Son Chhay of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), at the crux of the Areng issue is simply “corruption.”
Building Dams, Burning Bridges
Across mainland Southeast Asia, Chinese companies – spurred on by the Chinese government to “go global” – are seizing the window of opportunity left open by Western financiers wary of backing risky resource and infrastructure schemes in countries with weak social and environmental safeguards. Major state-owned enterprises (SOEs) like China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) and the Aluminum Corporation of China (Chalco) have been involved in some of the most controversial resource-development schemes of recent years. Examples include the Myitsone dam in Myanmar and bauxite mining in Vietnam’s ecologically diverse Central Highlands, both of which quickly gave rise to widespread local opposition.
To be sure, these companies are aware of the sizable commercial and reputational risks involved in financing such schemes. In most cases, however, it is not just a matter of turning a profit or securing their share of a developing market; especially for Chinese SOEs, involvement tends to be politically motivated as well.
Chinese hydropower companies, in particular, play a key role in Beijing’s so-called soft-power offensive in the region. Here, building dams is tantamount to “building bridges” with its strategic allies.
As one of the region’s least developed countries, Cambodia is a frequent recipient of Chinese aid and loan packages which, as regularly noted, comes with “no strings attached.” The Kamchay dam in Kampot province, for example, was funded by a $600-million development aid package.
But while China may be succeeding in its efforts to strengthen political and economic ties with the Hun Sen government, it has failed to improve its credibility in the eyes of ordinary Cambodians.
“For the Valley”
“The fight continues, as it will…for the rest of our lives,” replied Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of the local NGO Mother Nature, when asked about the current situation in the Areng Valley.
For the past six months, local villagers living near the planned dam site – the majority of whom are ethnic Chong – have erected a makeshift roadblock on the only road into the valley. The blockade has managed to deny entry to groups of officials and Chinese engineers on a number of occasions.
However, the latest attempt earlier this month would result in the detainment of eleven villagers, including Gonzalez-Davidson, by authorities.
“We had heard from several sources that the delegation would go there to smooth things up for Sinohydro’s machinery, basically to scam people into accepting pitiful compensation for their lands and to threaten anyone who was actively opposing the dam. The delegation claimed that they were only trying to enter the valley on a fact-finding mission, and that the heavy machinery the Chinese wanted to take in was needed to conduct ‘feasibility studies’,” recounts Gonzalez-Davidson.
Their roadblock has since been replaced by a small army outpost.
The challenges faced by civil society activists working on sensitive issues in Cambodia are clearly great. Most recently, Cambodian journalist Taing Try was shot dead as he was investigating illegal logging in the southern province of Kratie. Prominent environmental activist Chut Wutty met with a similar fate in 2012.
Prior to setting up the roadblock, Buddhist monks organized tree ordinations, wrapping an 80-meter saffron cloth around the valley’s ancient trees. According to Buddhist religious beliefs, cutting down any of these trees would be tantamount to killing a monk.
Efforts have also been taken to educate indigenous villagers of their legal rights. Samreth Law Group, a public interest law firm, has taken the initiative to help villagers claim collective ownership of their traditional land.
In what can be seen as a reflection of growing environmental consciousness in Cambodian society, groups like Mother Nature, Khmer Youth Empire, Wildlife Alliance and their supporters continue to persevere despite constant setbacks. Through media campaigns, petitions and hunger strikes in front of the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, they have raised public awareness on the issue and catalyzed local empowerment by encouraging community participation. As award-winning filmmaker Kalyanee Mam notes, “this is not an “anti” Areng dam movement, but more a movement to protect Cambodia’s natural and spiritual heritage.”
An Uncertain Future
Earlier in October, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy publicly announced that Hun Sen had “confirmed” that “there is no decision yet” to build the dam and said that “it may be postponed…to let the next generation decide.” Although there has yet to be an official statement from Hun Sen to corroborate this, the fact that there was no immediate denial from the prime minister himself following Rainsy’s comments is considered promising. Despite MIME’s previous announcement that the dam will be completed by 2020, no further attempts have reportedly been made by authorities to re-enter the valley.
It remains unclear as to what could have prompted this unexpected development. According to Son Chhay, because the country actually “has more than enough electricity,” the government is now realizing that if the dam were to be built now, it would have to “pay for electricity which we do not need.”
But for the locals, activists and conservationists involved in the issue, a confirmed suspension or cancellation of the Cheay Areng dam would attest to their tireless campaigning to protect the valley from Chinese hydropower encroachment.
And while they remain cautiously optimistic about the future of the Areng Valley, their achievements thus far speaks to how a grassroots campaign has succeeded in gaining policy resonance, enough to prompt high-level political debate on a national scale.
“The Areng valley campaign is the first home-grown environmental movement in Cambodia,” observes long-time forest campaigner Marcus Hardtke, “it is built around a broad coalition of activists and has strong roots in the urban Khmer youth. It is beyond the typical NGO activity in this country.”
Dr Pichamon Yeophantong is Lecturer in International Relations and Development at the University of New South Wales, and a Research Associate at the Global Economic Governance Programme, Oxford University.
* Corrected from the original “2012.”