A dam project set to flood thousands of hectares of protected forest and displace about 1,500 indigenous minority villagers in one of Koh Kong province’s most precious ecosystems should be scrapped, opposition Sam Rainsy Party MP Son Chhay said yesterday.
The 109-megawatt dam project in the Cheay Areng Valley is to be built by the Chinese state-owned firm Guodian Corporation and expected to flood up to 20,000 hectares, with about half of the reservoir in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest.
After returning from an investigation of the site, Son Chhay said the dam on the Stung Areng river would be a tragedy for the indigenous Chuong villagers – who have cultivated the area for centuries – and those who appreciated one of the country’s last, truly unique forests.
“It’s a great loss because we do not have many places in the country like that left. So many forests have been destroyed. This area has the rare animals, the endangered species, the mountain crocodile – so many rare animals I have never seen before,” he said.
The area is home to 39 globally threatened species, including Siamese crocodiles, dragon fish, Asian elephants and tigers.
“I think anyone who has been to the place to stay a few nights without electricity, without the modern living, will be exposed to the beauty of the nature, it will change their mind,” Son Chhay said.
He plans to screen footage of the area and interviews with villagers to parliament to show that developing eco-tourism in the area is a viable alternative to the economic benefit of a relatively low-output dam.
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Cheam Yeap thanked Son Chhay for conducting field research but revealed the project, previously just a proposal, had already been approved.
“That which the government has already granted to the company we cannot withdraw, but [we] will be checking on that personal report,” he said.
Son Chhay said he had spoken to a subcontractor building roads to the dam who had confirmed construction could begin next year, but argued it could still be cancelled.
“[The Myanmar government] decided to stop this big dam with the Chinese company, this billion-dollar project. Why can’t we stop a small dam?” he said, referring to the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam that was suspended last year.
By comparison, the Cheay Areng Valley dam had been budgeted at $327 million and has already been dumped by a previous company, China Southern Power Grid, which deemed it unfeasible in 2010.
Social and environmental impact assessments by both companies have been approved by the government, though only the first one has been made publicly available, drawing criticism from environmental groups.
Liang Jing Li, a Guodian Corporation representative, could not be reached yesterday.
Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers, said the fact the latest SEIA had not been subjected to public scrutiny meant no one could assess how realistic the touted benefits were.
“Cambodia does have a lot of blackouts, and that hurts business and industry. The problem with hydropower dams is in the dry season, they cannot produce power when it’s needed,” she said, labelling the power stations “dinosaur technology”.
But Adam Starr, a project coordinator with Fauna & Flora International, said although he was against the dam, arguments for alternative power sources and eco-tourism were unlikely to sway decision-makers looking at the short-term economic bottom line.
“You have this country that is 30 years behind every other country in the region desperately trying to catch up, and hydro dams look like the most attractive way,” he said.
As for the villagers feelings about being forced to leave, Son Chhay said they were furious about the dam, but too scared to say anything.
“No doubt some threats have been made against them that scared the hell out of them from talking about their ancestor’s culture and what they feel about the dam,” he said.