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A villager walks on a path in the Areng Valley where the planned construction of a new road has caused concern among community members. Photo supplied

Ethnic villagers concerned over Areng Valley roadway

Ethnic Chorng villagers in Koh Kong province have raised concerns that a controversial 20-kilometre road under construction in the Areng Valley will threaten their traditional way of life.

Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to build the road last August in response to a request at a public forum by social media celebrity Thy Sovantha, who claimed a new road would boost the local economy by bringing tourists.

Environmentalists and locals, however, were quick to point out that the road was just as likely to bring environmental degradation and illegal logging, while providing dubious benefits to residents.

On Monday, representatives of the local Chorng community met with a local activist to air their fears that the road will make the region more accessible to outsiders, who will disturb the Chorng way of life.

“We are not against the government over road construction, we just appeal to them to focus on [making it] effective for the villagers and natural resources,” Hing Pov, one of the villagers, said by phone yesterday.

“When they develop the area, more people will come to live and develop things; our way of life will be lost, and the next generation may not know our Chorng traditions.”

According to indigenous rights activist Ngach Samin, the forests of the Areng Valley are essential to Chorng livelihoods and culture. “In the forest they can collect traditional medicines,” he explained. “They can collect honey and they can hunt wild pig.”

Ministry of Environment spokesman Sao Sopheap, however, dismissed villagers’ concerns yesterday. “[Local people] need the road to improve their livelihoods by having access to places where they can sell agricultural produce and open eco-tourism activities.”

But the villagers’ belief that the road will bring outsiders who will pillage the environment and upend local traditions was supported by the assessment of long-time conservationist Markus Hardtke.

“[The Cardamom forest] is one of the last relatively untouched areas in Cambodia,” he said. “If you have a road, it is easy access to poachers and loggers,” he said. Roads, he added, lead to “land-grabbing along the roads, which means deforestation in the hinterlands”.

If a road is built, he concluded, “you will have business, gas stations; it will be the end for the forest, most likely”.

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John Lowrie's picture

There is no doubt that the building of roads, such as the main one to and from Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri, has proved to be disastrous for Cambodia's inhabitants who pre-date Khmer people. They have lost their lands and their traditional ways-of-living, so much so that their very existence is once again in doubt. The forced assimilation in to mainstream society may not be as extreme as during the Khmer Rouge, but it is happening all the same. And it is happening despite international and domestic laws that are supposed not only to protect them but to give them most say over development in their areas. This is not being afforded to them. Unfortunately too often it is painted that their interests are upheld only by being opposed to development. That need not be the case if they are allowed to choose. Today indigenous students are graduating from university. Their communities are much more able to exercise judgments in how to balance retaining tradition alongside modernity. Government officials should give them a meaningful say over development, especially unplanned incursion of newcomers that come with new roads. And external actors such as conservationists need to be more careful - some development, not no development, is the key to their survival.

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