Stung Treng province
Commune chief Seak Mekong changes into uniform in his family’s small wooden home in Sesan district’s Srekor I village before leading reporters to a speedboat on the Sesan River and motioning them to climb aboard.
“If I visit this logging site without a uniform, maybe I will have a problem,” the chief of Srekor commune, who cuts a more commanding figure in his beige uniform, says. “But I am the authority, and I have the right to lead guests to inspect this site.”
Mekong, a 42-year-old Sam Rainsy Party official, says that in the past week, he has been threatened by forestry administration officials and warned not to speak to the media about the luxury-grade timber he claims is being cleared a short boat trip away.
As Mekong speaks about protecting his community, his hopes of mustering international support and even of the slaying of environmental activist Chut Wutty, one thing is clear: the threats have not deterred him.
“I know that many high-ranking officials as well as many company workers are angry at me,” he says as the boat sets forth for a forest he says is being ravaged. “They warned me to stop talking about this, but I work for my people, so I’m not scared.”
Hundreds of families in Mekong’s commune – and about 1,000 in total in a wider area – live in houses that will be submerged by the reservoir of the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam, which was approved in February.
In exchange for making way for the $781 million, 400-megawatt dam – to be constructed by Royal Group and Chinese company Hydrolancang International Energy beginning next year – the government has promised families homes, farmland and infrastructure on sites as far as 15 kilometres away.
“We know the government needs to develop hydropower dams, so they need to move us to a new site, but [Royal Group] has not yet prepared infrastructure and homes. Instead, they have begun cutting down the forests in our community already,” Mekong says.
It’s a claim forestry officials have denied.
But as Mekong pulls his boat up at the river’s edge and leads his contingent up a steep bank, a group of about 30 imposing, muscular men – some in singlets, others in military fatigues – make it clear he was not exaggerating.
Little machinery can be seen, but a swath of trees in what Mekong says is a community forest has been cut and fresh tyre marks can be seen on tracks leading out of the forest.
“All of you are cutting down trees without asking me,” Mekong says to the workers who have formed a circle around him and his deputy, Beang Teang. “I am the authority here, and neither you nor the company have contacted me about cutting trees. All of you look down on authority.”
The workers – who say they are part of a group of 100 – seem relatively unperturbed as Mekong continues conversing with them, lecturing and even holding something of a press conference to reporters in front of them.
“How much money are you getting to clear the forest?” he asks the workers.
The reply comes: “$550 per hectare”.
“How many hectares of trees are you cutting?”
“Five hectares – but we’re only cutting small trees. We’re not cutting big trees. But if they need us to, we will; we need to support our families.”
Inland from the workers’ campsite, a Post reporter finds rows of freshly cut chhey krom, pchek and sralau timber – much bigger and more expensive trees than the group claimed to be cutting.
The workers, from Ratanakirri, Kratie and Stung Treng provinces – Mekong recognises three from his own commune – say nothing about the haul but claim to be working for someone named Oknha Khna.
“This is Royal Group’s project, but I don’t know if he has a licence to cut here or not,” Mekong says.
After Mekong leaves the forest workers, he takes reporters to another site minutes from his village, where a row of luxury-timber-grade trees have been sprayed with red paint to indicate they will soon be felled.
“Right now, Cambodia has many storms, and this particular area is a safety hill for villagers when there are floods,” he says. “The company has come to make this an area to process wood – so where will we go when the storm hits?”
Beang Teang, Mekong’s deputy, says villagers have been urging district and forestry administration officials to prevent workers from operating on the safety hill and other sites inside the community forest at least until the relocation is completed.
“An officer for the provincial forestry administration said, ‘Stop talking about this and demanding community forest – the company has a licence and needs to cut everything here. The people should not stop them’,” Teang says.
When Post reporters meet with Sesan district officials at their head office, Yoeung Srey Pheary, deputy district governor, says the “900 to 1,050 families” affected by the Lower Sesan 2’s reservoir will be moved at the end of this year or by early next year, according to information she has received from provincial officials.
Srey Pheary says she has received reports from villagers that luxury timber has been logged close to their homes, but her officials who have been dispatched to visit the areas have found evidence of only a small amount of clearing.
“I have been told by phone that the villagers’ claims are wrong, but I have not received any documents to support this. In that area, the company has a licence from the government to clear the bottom of the reservoir.”
Mekong is in an adjacent building explaining to Cambodian People’s Party officials that his community is concerned about the scant information it has received about relocation.
“Until now, we do not know yet exactly where the new sites will be or when we will be sent there,” he tells the Post later, adding that ruling party officials did promise to try to resolve the information issue.
Another pressing matter is the cutting of trees in forest that the villagers rely on, Mekong says. “We’re worried about them cutting the big trees now and never actually building the dam. I have seen this happen in Cambodia before.
“Right now, we have community forest – we rely on forest products such as honey and watery rubber from trees and we need wood to make our homes and fix them. The authorities have to build the infrastructure now at the new sites and compensate people before they cut the trees in this area.”
An anonymous source told Post that as part of the contract, Royal Group will cut one million cubic metres of forest in the reservoir area, which covers 36,000 hectares. “They have begun clearing this already,” says the source, adding that he also believes an Oknha Khna is involved in the project.
Tep Bunarith, director of NGO Culture and Environment Preservation Association, says construction equipment has been brought to the wider area’s dam reservoir zone.
“If I guess how much wood will be cut, it will be more than the figure in the contract,” he says. “According to what we’re hearing from villagers, the company has been cutting forest in areas outside the reservoir area too.”
Will not be silenced
After villagers in Srekor I village express their concern to the Post that they will not have infrastructure such as schools at their relocation sites or forest and a river nearby, Mekong says his community’s fight must – and will – continue.
“I was threatened and told to stop talking about this, but I will keep going until they give us a resolution,” he says.
“If I die speaking out about this, I will not feel sorry, because I’m helping my community.”
Kith Meng, chairman of Royal Group, said he was in a meeting in China before hanging up the phone yesterday, while Sith Samnang, forestry administration director in Sesan district, could not be reached for comment.