As of today, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a high-profile environmental activist and the founder of NGO Mother Nature, is living in Cambodia with an expired visa. The Spaniard is being forced to leave the country after Minister of Interior Sar Kheng rejected his visa renewal application following a complaint from Koh Kong provincial authorities. The government claims that he will be allowed back in to the country if he leaves immediately but says if he waits to be deported, he will be barred from re-entering.
Post Weekend spoke with Gonzalez-Davidson yesterday about his predicament, social media fame and what will happen to the fight to protect the Areng Valley from a hydropower dam if he is forced to leave.
Are you going to leave the country voluntarily?
If I was in Thailand or if I was in Spain, I wouldn’t sleep easily. I would not find it comfortable to be away. So I have made a decision that I am not going to go anywhere unless they come and physically catch me and take me to the border or to the airport. I’m going to stretch it for as long as I can. I know by law that I’ve got 37 days [after my visa expires]. And then obviously there’s also other solutions, which hopefully will happen in the next few days or few weeks, which is a renewal of the visa.
Do you have any hopes of being allowed to come back to Cambodia, like the government says?
To me that is just an excuse. I’ve been renewing my visa for 12 years, it never has been denied. So I find it extremely suspicious that they are saying you have to go for a week or so and then you have to come back in. I think that is just an excuse. They wouldn’t let me back in, why would they?
Should I stay or should I go?
Why do you think the government is going after you?
I don’t know actually. When we started the campaign, I never thought this was going to be so big. I think the videos on Facebook have been a massive thing. There are literally millions of Cambodians following this. And obviously we are not only involved in the Areng Valley campaign. We are also involved in sand dredging, we are also involved in Botum Sakor, where crimes against humanity are being committed, forced deportation. And they aren’t saying that, but the authorities in Koh Kong are really afraid of the Mother Nature movement, because we are expanding in Koh Kong. And they know that they are going to have an extremely difficult time in doing their dirty little business if they don’t get rid of Alex. What they don’t realise is that Alex is just one of the many people who are involved.
What is your response to those who say that foreigners shouldn’t be involved in this kind of confrontational activism in Cambodia?
I think if you look at what is happening all over the world, I think that is just complete nonsense. I mean, if Cambodia is a democracy like they claim that it is, then that is just not right. And in my own heart, I’ve been here long enough, and I consider myself as a Cambodian. So whenever they say ‘Oh you’re a foreigner, go back to Spain and defend the forests there.’ I’m like, you’re talking nonsense. I’m a Cambodian and I’m defending my forest. I think that just doesn’t make any sense.
Some people say you are irresponsible because you can leave the country but you’ve led all these Cambodians through this fight and they can’t leave?.
I mean the fact that I can leave and I [haven’t left] proves that I’m doing as much as I can, I’m facing the possibility of death or of arrest. And if I leave the country and then the wrath of the state, whatever that means, is thrown upon them… That’s something I’ve spoken about with them before, and they are more than happy to face the consequences. They will be going ahead with the campaign regardless. I’m not pushing them to do anything, it’s the complete opposite. We are pushing people away from us and we are keeping the group as small as possible. So this is not a valid argument at all.
Do you think that there’s some celebrity value in a foreigner who speaks fluent Khmer and fights with the government?
I think there’s too much celebrity value in that, and sometimes it’s embarrassing seeing your own face on Facebook constantly. It should be about ‘I am Areng, I am the last forest, I am a Cambodian and I want to protect that forest’. It shouldn’t really be about Alex. But if it’s about Alex and at the same they are linking Areng anti-hydro campaign with Alex, then for the time being, let’s do it. But it will evolve. I will make sure that it evolves and it becomes [about] Cambodians and people who want to save nature in general. Hopefully it will move away from this individual thing, but if for the time being it is. So be it, it’s not too much of a problem.