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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Last days of a valley damned

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Trees smoulder on land cleared in Speankda village, in Thma Bang district in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest in Koh Kong province. Will Baxter

Last days of a valley damned

Yong Yim’s voice rises to a high-pitched quiver when she talks about a planned dam in the Areng Valley that would inundate land her family has inhabited for hundreds of years to form what amounts to a giant battery.  

“Sometimes I am crying, because I will miss my homeland and my ancestors’ farmland,” she says, spitting out chunks of betel nut.

The trees and shrubs that flourish in this haven between peaks of the Cardamom Mountains now bear an ominous token: red demarcation ribbons posted by Chinese engineers a few weeks ago.

Yim, 65, was born here among a cluster of villages populated by 380 families. Most say they are Chong and Phor ethnic minorities, who fall under the umbrella identity of the Khmer Daeum — literally “original Khmers”.

The Khmer Daeum are so isolated they still speak a dialect believed to have derived from ancient Khmer that has been preserved since their ancestors fled from Thai invaders to the isolated Cardamoms hundreds of years ago.

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Prom Rin smokes in the jungle on land a Chinese firm has been surveying for a proposed dam in the Areng Valley. Will Baxter

Now they are staring at forced relocation again, their ancestral homelands all but doomed to become yet another area on the fringes of the Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF) to be devastated by the effects of hydropower dams. To date, there are three dam projects, some with multiple stations, under way on the boundaries of the CCPF.

Lee, an engineer working on one of those projects, the Stung Tatai, told the Post late last month plans to begin construction of the bitterly op­posed Cheay Areng dam were moving ahead rapidly.

“I spoke with the project leader of the Cheay Areng dam recently, and he said that next month [February] representatives from the company will meet with the Cambodian government to discuss the project,” Lee, who spoke on the condition his full name would not be printed, said.

 “If all goes well, construction could start as soon as July.”

Lee said a feasibility study for the once-abandoned Cheay Areng dam had recently been completed by China Guodian Corporation, the huge, state-owned firm that took over the project after China Southern Power Grid pulled out of the project in 2010.

The details of that study, Lee said, were scarce, and he had not investigated too much because matters here with the government could be “complicated”.

Repeated requests for comment from China Guodian Corporation went unanswered and the company hung up on reporters when reached by phone.

Previous studies conducted for the firm China Southern Power Grid, which dumped the project because they deemed it unfeasible, suggest that a 109-megawatt dam would be fed by a 20,000-hectare reservoir.

Roughly 10,000 hectares of this reservoir would cover forest directly within the CCPF, the largest single encroachment to date on what is one of Cambodia’s last remaining well-protected conservation zones. The remaining 10,000 hectares of the reservoir would inundate the forest homelands of the Khmer Daeum.  

But despite the massive impact, the energy output would be strikingly small.

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Local villagers walk through an area of lush vegetation in the Areng Valley where a new dam has been slated for construction. Will Baxter


Tracey Farrell, senior technical director for Conservation International-Cambodia, which supports conservation programs in the CCPF, said in an email that a previous environmental impact assessment had found that the dam “failed to meet the minimum power density ratio of more than 100 watts/m2 of surface area of the reservoir”.

This has led conservation groups to question why the government would allow the destruction of such precious remaining forest for a dam that the latest publicly available information suggests will not really work. There has been no answer.

Using satellite imagery analysis, Conservation International has found that only about two per cent of the 402,000-hectare CCPF lost vegetation between 2006 and 2012.

But with each new dam project – the Stung Atai, Stung Tatai and Stung Russey Chrum – comes a wave of opportunistic migrant loggers commissioned by powerful syndicates, as well as violence and corruption.

A land unparalleled
The loss of the Areng Valley would be particularly devastating. In its upper reaches, the 150-kilometre Areng River resembles that of a large low-land river despite being far from the ocean. The unique morphology likely explains why it boasts an extraordinary diversity of species, most of which are endangered.

Populations of clouded leopards, Asian elephants, Siamese crocodiles, dragon fish, Asiatic black bears and a raft of other reptiles, birds, fish and mammals thrive here.

Rare fish species flourish in the valley’s oxbow lakes – U-shaped stretches of water that have become detached from the river.

In his own visits to the Areng, the Chinese engineer Lee has borne witness to the rich diversity of wildlife that feed off of and seek shelter in the valley’s thriving flora.

“I’ve seen crocodiles, elephants and other animals in the area, but if you want to build a dam, you have to cut the trees down. Then the animals that live there will move away. It’s unavoidable,” he said.

The elephant population in particular is so robust that toward the end of every annual harvest, petrified migrant villagers find themselves with little choice but to shoot off fireworks at hungry elephants to save their crops from the marauding herds.

Just days before Post reporters arrived, almost three weeks ago, the elephants had been on a fresh gastronomic offensive, indulging on bananas, peanuts – anything ready for harvest.

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Mar Thon (left) and his wife, Son Cherp, describe a recent night when a herd of elephants passed through their land in the Areng Valley. Will Baxter

The nearly 1,000 people who will be forcibly relocated if the dam is built have been offered six-by-eight-metre houses with zinc roofs on two-hectare plots of land smack dab in the middle of what conservationists loosely term an “elephant corridor”.

But that’s not their only concern with the relocation site.

Prom Rin, 43, believes he will be relocated to land that is just 100 metres from where the dam would discharge. He fears disaster would ensue if something went wrong with construction.

Thma Daun Pov commune is just one of many relocation sites that have been floated; and though no official word has been issued, villagers are convinced this is the likely option.

“I am worried that we will lose everything,” says Rin.

His fears are not unfounded. In December, an outlet pipe burst at the Stung Atai dam, which, like Areng, discharges just outside the perimeter of the CCPF.

The torrent that was unleashed swept away at least three men, possibly four, who are now presumed dead.

Of greatest importance to those facing forced eviction is that they will lose lands that are home to ancestral spirits and which they have harmoniously cultivated for generations. Some villagers are desperately suggesting eco-tourism could instead be developed as an alternative to the dam, drawing in tourists to experience the wonderful diversity of species in the area.

But no one is helping them to develop this foreign, relatively complex industry, and there is one rare species in Areng that actually threatens to entice the destruction of the forest rather than its protection – luxury rosewood.

If the experience of other dam projects on the boundaries of the CCPF is anything to go by, the peoples of the Areng Valley can expect huge social and environmental problems related to the clandestine trade in luxury timber that is likely to stretch far beyond the boundaries of the dam and its reservoir.

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A red flag marks an area surveyed by engineers from a Chinese company on the bank of a river in the Areng Valley. Will Baxter

Lessons of the past
About 16 kilometres away in the town of Thma Bang, military police and soldiers infest the streets, patrolling the area like a small, privately owned fiefdom.

They are known to use intimidation and violence against anyone potentially jeopardising the interests of the corrupt businessmen and officials profiting from the illegal rosewood trade in nearby Tatai Leu commune – for whom they routinely moonlight. Repeatedly, this intimidation has been directed at reporters from the Post, who have been detained, threatened and forced to flee from military police.

In Areng, rosewood is still so abundant that on one farm the Post visited, the owner had simply tossed highly valuable small pieces of timber to the ground, only bothering to collect the more lucrative larger logs.

Tatai Leu was once home to abundant rosewood stocks, but in late 2011, after the Stung Tatai dam was approved in January of the same year, a wave of migrants arrived and began selectively logging the trees to sell on to powerful syndicates.

Today, the migrants collect only stumps left over from the more profitable days, and even these are becoming scare.

With a less reliable income stream from illegal logging, migrants are now seeking to clear land for farming so they can support their families.

Though rosewood can fetch more than a million dollars as finished pieces of luxury furniture sold in China, those who do the hard work of logging make just a few dollars per log.

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A villager ferries reporters to see a red demarcation ribbon on the bank of the Areng river. Will Baxter

There is no separating logging from land grabbing – the two issues are linked in a chain that starts with the selective logging of luxury timber (often, in the case of the CCPF, after a company is legally granted the right to clear a dam reservoir). It ends with migrants who are enticed to the area as manual labour vying with companies and powerful individuals to clear fell the remaining trees − the former seeking a livelihood, the latter seeking huge profits from large-scale agriculture.

The worst example is in Pursat’s O’Som commune in the northern CCPF, where vast tracks of once-pristine land are left looking like a bombsite after tycoon Try Pheap’s MDS Import & Export came in to clear the reservoir for the Stung Atai dam in 2009.

So it is becoming the case in Tatai Leu, where large tracts of clear-felled land lay still smouldering on either side of the road that intersects this once untouched stretch of evergreen forest three weeks ago.

Villagers told the Post they were clear felling the forest because Prime Minister Hun Sen’s volunteer land surveyors have been deployed directly inside the CCPF, and they need to prove they are cultivating the land to have any hope of receiving a title.

But the opportunistic logging rush extends to higher officials, and to have any hope of receiving a title, you have to be connected, they said.

Kim Ra, 36, and his family moved to Tatai Leu commune about  six months ago, after they heard about the national land-titling scheme.

“I think if the student did not measure the land for me, that’s fine. But I’ll still live here,” he told the Post.

Like all the villagers the Post spoke to in Tatai Leu, Ra said that the commune chief and district chief had been seeking to secure much larger plots of land under the national land-titling scheme, including one hill that has now been almost completely deforested on one side.

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Three of Kim Ra's six children play under their house on land the family recently cleared in Tatai Leu commune, Thma Bang district, Koh Kong province. Will Baxter

When contacted by the Post, Meas Chan, chief of Tatai Leu commune, refused to comment, saying only that he did not know about such rumours and had no involvement, while Tou Savuth, governor of Thma Bang district, could not be reached.

The issue of migrants clearing land in the CCPF to claim titles was “particularly problematic”, wrote Conservation International-Cambodia’s Tracy Farrell.

“Any land clearing that is taking place, whether it is inside or outside the CCPF in the buffer zone, is a major threat to biodiversity and the ecosystems that provide essential services that people depend upon,” she wrote.

As a result of this threat, documentation on eight cases of illegal land-clearing since 2012 involving 60 hectares of cleared forest were being investigated by the provincial court, Farrell wrote. In at least one case, a primary suspect had been named by the court.

Nevertheless, there is clearly friction between different government authorities and officials over whether or not to crack down on the illegal logging.

Even a military police officer in Tatai Leu, who declined to give his name, was clearly frustrated by what he said was clear-felling backed by corrupt local officials.

“If I was a volunteer student, I would not measure land for them, and I would file a complaint against those people to the court because they cut trees,” he said, going on to allege that senior local government officials were buying the land up off them.  

Koh Kong provincial forestry administration chief Oum Makary acknowledged that illegal clearing had taken place inside the CCPF but said all he could do was send his report to the provincial governor and high-level officials.

“I have no duty to do [pursue] it besides [filing] the report,” he said.

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Yong Yim, a 65-year-old ethnic Chong villager, has lived in the Areng Valley her entire life. Will Baxter

A three-star general who tried to take action to stop the illegal logging had recently been fired, he said.

Just under two weeks ago, a large government entourage, including the prime minister and his entire politburo, took a trip to isolated Thma Bang town, arriving in a convoy of black SUVs.

As the premier lauded the final chapter in his national land-titling scheme, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Chan Sarun drove on to Tatai Leu, straight past the clear-felled smouldering tracks of what was meant to be a protected forest.

If Sarun was shocked by the destruction he witnessed on either side of the road, he uttered not a word publicly.

To contact the reporters on this story: May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com
David Boyle at david.boyle@phnompenhpost.com
Danson Cheong at dansoncjf@gmail.com

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