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Dam critics outline litany of risks

A crocodile skull beside a river bank in Koh Kong province’s Thma Bang district in December
A crocodile skull beside a river bank in Koh Kong province’s Thma Bang district in December. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Dam critics outline litany of risks

As villagers in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley continue to block Sinohydro Corp employees from entering the area where the Stung Cheay Areng dam is planned, conservationists and rights workers have spoken of the havoc it will wreak if it goes ahead.

In terms of the impact on wildlife, forests and the livelihoods and traditions of the local communities, Toby Eastoe of Conservation International (CI) said that it would create a litany of problems.

“I have not seen the relocation plan, but it could wipe out a large amount of forest and [this] is my main concern if the dam does go ahead,” he said.

Eastoe said that the company, the world’s largest hydropower developer, had approached NGOs working on conservation in the area for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) that it is preparing to evaluate the costs of conservation. The firm is bound to conduct a new EIA under a 1999 law regulating development projects.

“As investment companies coming to Cambodia, their responsibility is to make sure that environmental offsets get to the right people and in a transparent way, as advised to them by all of the EIAs,” he said.

Sinohydro took over the project when China Guodian backed out after assessing the costs late last year.

But some of the conservation groups’ projects in the area have put them at odds with affected communities. The relocation of endangered Siamese crocodiles by Flora and Fauna International (FFI) has also drawn criticism from locals and rights groups.

Villagers wrote to FFI in December, accusing the NGO of complicity in forcing “the Siamese crocodiles, a rare species, into extinction”, after finding a dead crocodile and witnessing FFI staff removing another from the area, according to the letter.

“Be kindly reminded,” the letter read, “that the Siamese crocodiles are regarded by our communities as sacred, and as such have been venerated since ancient times”.

Sam Han, Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project manager at FFI, could not be reached yesterday.

“That’s a very sensitive population. There might only be one or two breeding females there . . . if you build a dam and flood it, it’s going to flood all of their nesting areas and they won’t breed for a period,” Eastoe said.

He added that “a huge flood of migrants [would come] looking for new land around the areas being cleared, and they’re going to be hunting. So, whatever happens with the dam, it will have a huge impact on that population – it could wipe them out.”

“Sure, it’s an important valley, but it’s a globally recognised species, and we’ve got to look at conserving it globally. Unfortunately, there could be just as much risk in relocating them so we need to do more research before anyone makes a decision that can impact the Areng population.”

But Alex Gonzalez-Davidson of Mother Nature Cambodia said that the NGOs cooperating with government agencies to carry out their work were acting against the interests of the local people and the environment.

“FFI went back in March, secretly. They thought that the dam would be imminent,” he said. “The community got really angry one day when they saw a group of FFI people take a crocodile out of area . . . so they chased the FFI team out.”

Of the conservation groups, he said “they’re working essentially with the mafia”, referring to officials and the company.

Yesterday, Vana Savoeurn, 26, a villager who is taking part in the blockade, said they were prepared to fell trees to block the road and stop the company transporting machinery to the site.

“We will use tractors, motorbikes and fell . . . trees on the road to block them,” she said. “[If the dam is built] endangered crocodiles, giant fish and other species will be inundated and die. We’ll lose our home forever.”

Provincial Governor Bun Leut yesterday called on the community to end the blockade and allow Sinohydro to complete its assessments at the site.

“What we need is the final study of the effects and to send the report to the government, which makes the final decision on the project,” he said.

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