'If it's going to kill us, OK, we'll die'

On Sept. 25, amid a continuing crackdown on media, political opposition and civil society described by commentators as “a slide into dictatorship,” Prime Minister Hun Sen officially launched Cambodia’s biggest hydropower project.

At the ceremony the gates were closed on the $800 million Lower Sesan 2 dam, a joint venture between China’s Hydrolancang International Energy, Cambodia’s Royal Group and Vietnamese state power company EVN. The project has been described by scientists as potentially the single most destructive tributary dam in the Mekong River system – where 200 medium- to large-scale dams are already built, planned or under construction.

Cambodia’s strongman spoke for an hour at the opening about the country’s need for electricity and development and its achievement in securing its own energy supply. He defiantly dismissed concerns about the dam’s impacts on the river system, fish and food security, and criticized NGOs who have campaigned against it.

Situated just below the confluence of two of the Mekong’s biggest tributaries, the 56.5-meter-high (185 feet), 400-megawatt capacity dam will block fish migrations between Cambodia’s giant Tonle Sap lake and the 3S (Sesan, Srepok, Sekong) river systems, experts say. According to one oft-cited assessment, the dam will singlehandedly lead to a 9.3 percent loss of fish throughout the entire Lower Mekong River Basin. It will also flood an area of 36,000 hectares, displacing an estimated 5,000 people in 854 households.

Geographer Ian Baird, who was commissioned in 2008 by a coalition of Cambodian NGOs to research the impacts of the planned dam, concluded that 80,000 people living upstream and more than 20,000 people downstream of it would be directly affected by heavy fishing losses or dramatic changes in water quality and hydrology. The broader impacts of migratory fish loss would potentially impact millions of people throughout the Mekong countries, Baird concluded.

But Hun Sen has been upbeat about the problems.

“After construction, just release more fish!” he said at the inauguration event, promising cheap power and socioeconomic development for Cambodia’s ethnically diverse and marginalized northeast region, and mentioning the need for provincial authorities to move ahead with relocating the people still living in two villages in the dam’s reservoir area.

The next day the residents of Kbal Romeas, due to be flooded out within weeks, reopened their school, which had been shut since the government withdrew teachers, along with monks from the village temple, two years ago.

The holdouts

Phone coverage is almost non-existent since the closure of a nearby communication tower; the bridge that provided access to the nearest city, Stung Treng, has been dismantled; and police, who closed the road to the villages in the lead-up to the official dam opening, are still operating checkpoints on it, making access to health services, markets and the world at large difficult.

But intimidation and a lack of services haven’t swayed the 58 indigenous Bunong families still living in the remote riverside community of Kbal Romeas. They are convinced of their rights and determined to remain on their ancestors’ land, with its spirit places, burial forest and abundant natural resources.

At nearby Srekor, 60 mainly ethnically Lao households are equally resolute.

Kbal Romeas didn’t feel like a community under siege when Mongabay visited in late September. The atmosphere in the village was calm but alert.

Towering tamarind, mango and jackfruit trees shaded the village, many of their trunks spray-painted with anti-dam slogans or simply the word “NO”. Elevated wooden houses nestled among bamboo and banana palms, some of them abandoned, the red-painted tags used to indicate their owners’ agreement to leave now fading into the weathered boards. At this time of year most people were working long hours in their paddies and farms a few kilometers away, where they grow several kinds of rice and a variety of vegetables, including eggplant, pumpkin, beans and cassava.

Those left in the village went about their day – working in kitchen gardens, tending to animals, fixing farm and fishing tools, and lounging, chatting and smoking in the shade.

No one seemed fazed by a foreigner with a camera. Media coverage has been an important part of resistance to the dam, and people are counting on it to continue to present their case and help protect them.

“The UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) states very clearly that indigenous people have the right to free, prior and informed consent,” said community representative Samnang Dam through an interpreter.

“So the community has the right to say yes or no to a project. If they say no, they have the right to live in the area they want to. The company or the government can’t take those rights away. Cambodia, as a signatory to UNDRIP, has to respect that.”

Beneath an easy smile and quick laugh, Samnang, a 32-year-old father of two, was worried.

The “holdout” villagers in Kbal Romeas have never believed the Lower Sesan 2 would raise the river enough to submerge their houses. The recent closure of the gates, heavy rains and commencement of reservoir management will soon reveal if they are right.

If the Srepok River does rise up and flood the village, they plan to withdraw to their farmland, five kilometers (three miles) away, where there is plenty of high ground and they already have basic dwellings.

There’s one major problem with the plan: Local authorities claim to have contracted the area out for rubber plantations.

“We told them that we’ve lived here since before Cambodian law started,” Samnang said. “We also feel that the law of Cambodia protects us. Cambodian citizens have the right to live on their own land.”

More than flooding and land conflict, though, Samnang is worried about security – his own, his family’s and that of the whole community. The day before, Sept. 26, Samnang said strangers carrying knives came into the village asking for him and several other community activists by name.

“If people from the company or the government come to the village for discussions, we’re OK with that. We’re confident we can deal with those people,” Samnang said. “But if they just send some spy to kill us, how can we know?”

Since villagers in Kbal Romeas started working with local NGOs – particularly river protection network 3SPN – and organizing to actively oppose the construction of the dam several years ago, their activities have been monitored and often closed down by local authorities and police.

In late July this year a group of around 70 indigenous Cambodians on a solidarity-inspired visit to the village were met on the highway by a heavy buildup of police and soldiers who arrested more than 20 people and blocked others, including journalists, from continuing.

A protest that helped free the visitors resulted in its supposed ringleaders being summoned to court.

“It’s incredible that they abuse our rights and then file complaints against us!” said Samnang, who was named on the summons together with his sister and niece.

In the open-air kitchen beneath the house where we were talking, two teenage boys cleaned and cooked catfish caught fresh from the river, a cloud of lemongrass and chili fumes wafting toward us from the direction of the fire.

“We’ll stay in the village and protect everything we have here,” Samnang said.

Claims of an illegal logging free-for-all

One of the things villagers are protecting in Kbal Romeas is their forest, which is being illegally logged, they say, largely by a company contracted to “clean up” the dam reservoir area.

The claim is backed by a report by Cambodia’s National Police published in May, which accused Ang & Associates Lawyers, a company owned by tycoon dam developer Kith Meng, of the Royal Group, of using its reservoir clearance license to launder illegally logged timber and, despite a ban on the trade, selling it to buyers in Vietnam.

Local media coverage of the issue suggests an illegal logging free-for-all has been taking place under cover of the reservoir clean-up contract, with various groups harvesting timber from protected areas and cutting trails through the forest.

For several years Kbal Romeas villagers have run community patrols, sometimes daily, to detect loggers and have successfully stopped their operations many times by confronting them, Samnang said.

“When we see them we stop their tractors and ask them to leave our village. In the last three years I don’t know how many times we did that!”

Ang & Associates, Kith Meng and provincial authorities have denied the claims.

When they first found out about it nearly a decade ago, people up and down the Sesan and Srepok rivers were almost universally opposed to the plan for the Lower Sesan 2.

A 2012 survey of people in the area by The NGO Forum for Cambodia found that over 96 percent of them had adequate livelihoods, while the 3 percent of people who were living below the poverty line weren’t suffering food shortages due to the availability of natural resources.

“Almost all people show their love for their native villages, do not want to leave and do not want the Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Dam Development Project to occur because it will cause great impacts on natural resources and the environment, especially … on a lot of households’ livelihoods,” the “baseline study” report says.

Based on interviews with villagers and analysis of the project’s 2009 environmental impact assessment (EIA), the report concluded that developers fell far short of Cambodia’s legal requirements for obtaining free, prior and informed consent from affected communities, or even conducting genuine consultations. Many people, the survey found, had not even been given official information about the project.

“Public consultations, information dissemination and seeking of people’s approval for the implementation of the project seems to be limited,” the report stated, noting that at the only public consultation meeting for which attendance was recorded, not one ordinary resident of the area had been present.

Refusing to resettle

Whatever rights people enjoy under national or international law, it takes rare courage and strength to defend them against state-sanctioned development in Cambodia.

In late 2015 and early 2016, thousands of people from five villages in the Lower Sesan 2 reservoir area made the move to the resettlement villages built for them by the hydropower company, among them around 75 percent of the former inhabitants of Kbal Romeas.

At “New Kbal Romeas,” built along a highway a couple of hours from the old one, a neat row of blue-roofed houses on a bare-earth development awaits the rebel villagers.

There is electricity, a clinic and school in the new village, but conditions there reportedly follow the sad pattern of big hydropower resettlements the world over: poor quality replacement land for agriculture and not enough of it; lack of adequate clean water; and a lack of access to natural resources, forcing the shift to a cash-based way of life, with few options to earn money.

“They say they can accept the situation, but what I saw I felt was unacceptable,” says Samnang, who has visited the resettlement village twice.

Even if the fish numbers in the river decreased so much that they could hardly catch any, the villagers could survive at Kbal Romeas, Samnang said. “If we were to go somewhere else, our livelihood would be worse. We would lose the natural resources we depend on, our ancestors’ graves, and with them our culture and identity.”

“What we are doing is based on our traditions,” said Sophear Sro, 47, a teacher who lost her job when she refused to leave Kbal Romeas. “As indigenous people we know who we are. We know what we want. I’m not taking anyone else’s property. I live in my own village on my own land. This land belongs to me through my ancestors.

“We support ourselves by farming, raising livestock and hunting, and we have our own incomes. If we need money, we can sell our pigs, cows and buffalos. We can get money. Even the children can collect things from the forest to sell, like lizards, mushrooms, wild potato or resin.

“If the flood’s really coming, let it come!” Sophear says. “If it’s going to kill us, OK, we’ll die! I won’t move.”

Around sundown, people converge on the village wells to wash, and solar lights are switched on in houses. A few families turn on TVs plugged into car batteries.

In the night a thunderstorm crashes cataclysmically around the village, rocking the wooden houses and illuminating them with sudden flashes as a violent deluge falls from the sky.

In the morning the muddy tracks through the village have deepened and the river has risen a meter. Everything is calm. Everyone waits to see what will happen.

Two weeks after Hun Sen’s comments at the dam opening, villagers received a letter signed by him instructing them to move their houses and belongings to a resettlement site or “safe area” of their choosing as disastrous flooding could soon occur. It encouraged them to participate in compensation assessments, which up until now they have refused, announcing there was an end-of-year deadline for any claims to be accepted.

The letter also said that outsiders were now prohibited from entering the villages, for safety reasons. On Thursday, Oct. 12, around 30 people from Kbal Romeas and Srekor together with other indigenous supporters gathered in Phnom Penh to present a letter of their own. They called on the government and provincial authorities to stop pressuring people to leave the two villages, to legally recognize indigenous peoples’ communal land rights, to demilitarize the area, and to restore services and freedom of movement.

A young Bunong woman recently died, the letter said, because she was unable to reach hospital in time, and 80 children from the two communities had gone without school for two years.

Back in Kbal Romeas, the volunteer-taught classes are continuing. The children, after such a long holiday, are glad to be going back to school.

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