In two looming hydropower dam projects in Cambodia, indigenous communities await their fate. They face forced evictions and loss of the lands, rivers, forests, soil, fish and plants with which their lives and identities are intertwined. Construction of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam in Stung Treng and the Cheay Areng Dam in Koh Kong spells likely disaster for these resources and the communities who depend on them.
The communities in Cambodia are not alone. Indigenous peoples and their cultures are threatened around the world. Over 370 million indigenous people in more than 90 countries make up 5% of the global population. Indigenous peoples routinely experience discrimination and systemic exclusion from political and economic processes. They face forcible displacement from ancestral homelands and deprivation of wealth and resources. Indigenous traditions and knowledge systems are being lost: for example, estimates predict the extinction of 90% of global languages (of which indigenous languages make up two thirds) by 2100.
In Asia, home to two thirds of the world’s indigenous peoples, indigenous livelihoods remain closely linked with customary ownership and management of land, forest and water resources. But rampant economic development imperils these systems as lands are expropriated for state-sponsored and corporate projects.
“If we lose access to these natural resources, we will lose our culture and traditions”
In Stung Treng Province in northern Cambodia, 5000 people are slated for resettlement to make way for the Lower Sesan 2 Dam (LS2), many of them members of indigenous and minority ethnic groups, including the Phnong, Kavet, Pov and Lao. Preliminary construction is underway for the 400 MW project and substantial construction set to commence in early 2015.
Because of its location near a juncture in the rivers, LS2 will block both the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, two major tributaries of the Mekong, flooding a vast area. Together with the Sekong, these three tributaries form the 3S Rivers Basin, a river system closely linked to that of the Mekong. Every year scores of migratory fish species travel from the Mekong up the Sesan and Srepok rivers to spawn, and water and sediment from the 3S river system feed the Mekong River and the connected Tonle Sap Lake. These flows support hundreds of thousands of people living alongside the waterways; sustaining the fish that provide an essential source of food and protein, and the fertile riparian soil.
Scientific studies have predicted disastrous consequences if the LS2 dam is built: 9.3% of fish will disappear across the Mekong River Basin and significant changes to water and sediment flows will cause wide-ranging harm to riverbank farming. A vast swathe of land will be deforested and inundated, including community forests owned by indigenous groups.
Local people have been outspoken about their fears for the future if the project is built. Thus far their voices have gone unheeded. Recently, villagers in Kbal Romeas and Sraekor issued open statements to the government resettlement committee stating their refusal to relocate for the project. Indigenous Phnong villagers in Kbal Romeas said:
“We have beautiful land with rich natural resources that support our life and provide us with our food and income sources… These natural resources are priceless.
These natural resources also have very strong connections with our culture, tradition and daily life, which are indispensable to us. If we lose access to these natural resources, we will lose our culture and traditions. Once we lose these natural resources and our culture and tradition, it is impossible to recover them.
Our culture, tradition, guardian spirits, ancestral graves, forbidden and sanctuary forests cannot be compensated by money or moved to other places. If we move out from our village, we will lose our identity as the ethnic Phou Nong minority.”
These statements are the latest action in years of tireless campaigning by communities to have their views heard in decision-making about the LS2 project.
Indigenous and community concerns are too often muted in the relentless drive for economic development, pushed forward in the absence of participatory processes or assessment of alternative options to meet energy needs. The statements reveal a competing vision of the future and of development for the area, one that is community imagined, valued, driven and managed. But such alternatives to the development trajectory are not heard in the policy dialogues that produce mega-dams such as LS2. Questions of cost and benefit, and who gets a say in determining what has value and what can be sacrificed, simply don’t enter the equation.
“We are staying here on the lands of our ancestors. Our children will never forgive us if we move”
In Koh Kong in Cambodia’s southwest, indigenous Chorng (Khmer Daeum) people have spent months locked in a bitter struggle to keep the Chinese companies and contractors planning development of the 108MW Cheay Areng Dam from entering their land. A community roadblock, in place from March 2014, prevented company personnel from undertaking the feasibility and environmental impact studies necessary to commence the project. The standoff continued until September, when several community members and activists were arrested and authorities ordered that the roadblock be discontinued. However, the roadblock has recently restarted in response to attempts to press forward with preparatory studies.
The Areng valley, site of the proposed dam, is in the Cardamon Mountains, surrounded by an expanse of protected tropical forest, housing rich ecosystems and numerous rare and endangered species. Around 1500 Chorng indigenous people call Areng home. They have lived in the area for at least 600 years and consider it their ancestral homeland. Here, waterways, wildlife and the trees that make up the forest are not simply resources but spirit deities, whom the local indigenous people live alongside and interact with. These spiritual relationships, their role in the broader belief systems of the Chorng, and the deities themselves will be destroyed if the dam is built and the area flooded; submerged under new flows of outside construction workers, land speculators, opportunistic migrants, authorities and illegal loggers drawn to the valley.
The Areng communities’ protests have garnered support from a national and international media campaign, backed by local NGOs led by Mother Nature, and an activist group of Buddhist monks. The monks are drawn from surrounding areas and are concerned about conserving the pristine tract of forest in the Cardamoms. Campaigning in solidarity with indigenous communities, they undertake ‘tree ordination,’ where trees are blessed for protection and marked with an orange robe that has become a powerful visual symbol of Buddhist environmentalism.
The communities may now have a glimmer of hope. Reports have emerged that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said the project may not proceed during the current government term, but be “left to the next generation to decide.” If this is true, it is good news for the people of the Areng valley. But the question remains: for how long? The feasibility and impact studies for the project are now moving forward. The Areng communities will continue to play a waiting game for their futures, unless there is a fundamental shift in the forces stacked against them and their sacred forest.
‘Development’ and irreconcilable future in Cambodia
Cambodia’s 24 indigenous groups live in 15 provinces and make up 1.4 percent of the population. The rush to exploit natural resources and roll out energy and infrastructure projects in the country has left many of these communities landless and homeless.
Cambodia supported the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, (UNDRIP) which contains the right of indigenous peoples to ‘free, prior and informed consent’ (FPIC) to any relocation from their lands and territories. The Declaration also established explicit protections for indigenous rights to land, culture and livelihoods. Despite endorsement of UNDRIP, these provisions have not yet been incorporated into Cambodian law.
Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law confers a right of collective land ownership for indigenous communities, but a complex, expensive and slow registration process is required to assert this right. As of May 2014, only 8 communities had completed the registration procedure. For some of these the protection comes too late, as the lands claimed have already been deforested and stripped of vital resources.
In a 2012 report, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia stressed the threats to indigenous livelihoods and cultures posed by massive land concessions and other developments granted on land claimed by indigenous peoples. One finding was that many concessions appeared to be of limited value to the people of Cambodia, benefitting only a small and privileged minority. The report expressed serious concern over the violence and intimidation visited on indigenous groups who refused to resettle or fought to retain their land and communities.
The pattern is set to continue for indigenous and other Cambodians who rely on the rivers and waterways. The Cambodian government has identified large-scale hydropower projects as key to meeting Cambodia’s electricity needs. A 2003 national sectoral review identified 60 potential hydropower sites and a national generation potential estimated at 10,000MW, including sites on the Mekong River, Mekong tributaries and in the country’s southwest.
The march for development continues in Cambodia, and it is a one-sided conversation, with scant attention to ensuring that irreplaceable and interconnected social and natural ecosystems are valued and protected. With the ongoing displacement of indigenous peoples, their alternative visions for the future and contributions to this dialogue are also jettisoned. Excluding indigenous voices from a meaningful role in development decisions represents a tragic loss; one that violently strips peoples of dignity and their surety of a place in the world. It is a loss that impoverishes us all.
The struggle of indigenous people in Cambodia, and globally, is one for survival. Efforts to assert and protect the collective rights of peoples can also be understood within a broader struggle for the future of humanity and the form that this future will take.