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Dam foes ‘stay strong’

A man looks over a river in Koh Kong
A man looks over a river in Koh Kong yesterday that would not exist if the proposed Areng Valley dam project were approved. Heng Chivoan

Dam foes ‘stay strong’

Supporters of deported environmentalist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson yesterday lamented the Spaniard’s departure while pledging to continue to resist the planned Stung Cheay Areng hydropower dam.

Gonzalez-Davidson had long opposed the dam’s construction and had drawn the ire of the authorities by galvanising local opposition. He was deported on Monday evening after being detained with fellow Mother Nature co-founder San Mala in central Phnom Penh.

Hoeung Pov, 32, a headman in the Areng community, said life would prove more difficult now that Gonzalez-Davidson had been forced to leave the country, as he had been a much-needed source of information.

“We don’t get much information about the outside world,” he said. “At first, Alex learned from us about our lives here, but then he showed us the importance of nature and natural resources. Since then, we started to love nature even more.

“Alex was a connection for us with the outside world, to help us spread information and receive information. We’re sad that he has left, but we’re also determined to stay strong to oppose the plans for building the dam,” he added.

Pov and other villagers said they believe the motive for Khmer-speaking Gonzalez-Davidson’s deportation was his ability to act as a conduit between the villagers, activists, government and media.

“I think the government was concerned that Alex had more knowledge [than us] and connected us to people in other countries to help us fight them.”

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen for the first time publicly said the Cheay Areng dam, which would flood about 9,500 hectares and displace more than 1,300 ethnic minority Chorng people, would not be built under this government, a position he had reportedly earlier voiced to opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Purportedly joking, Hun Sen also warned the local community against creating an “autonomous zone”, saying that he would deploy rocket launchers to the area if needs be.

The speech on Tuesday was a marked change from an earlier defence of the dam in which he extolled its supposed benefits and played down the environmental impact.

At Kirivong pagoda in the valley, chief monk Sok Chettra said the community was still weighing its options, but lacked accurate information.

“Half of the villagers agree and half disagree with the dam. Those who agree, do so because they like money and want a change from the current poverty. Many want to go on with their daily lives, and they don’t believe the promises being made [by the authorities],” he said.

Thou Sareth, a 66-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier living in Chumnorb commune, echoed a familiar refrain.

“In our area, there is no school, no health care, no toilets.… I want development, but I don’t want it to come if we will not benefit, lose our nature and face eviction,” he said.

“Alex didn’t gain anything by coming here, and he didn’t take anything from here. He’s the only foreigner who has come to inform us and tell us how we can protect the area.”

At least one local had a less generous assessment.

“I don’t like Alex. He didn’t do anything for me and we don’t need any foreigners here anyway,” the man, who refused to give his name, said.

Children play in front of a house adorned with a hydropower dam protest banner
Children play in front of a house adorned with a hydropower dam protest banner yesterday in Koh Kong’s Areng Valley. Heng Chivoan

Environmental and social impact assessments are due to be completed before any decision on whether Sinohydro will build the dam. The last company to assess the viability of the project concluded it would not be profitable and pulled out.

Many in the valley hope Sinohydro will follow suit. However, a new company called Stung Cheay Areng Hydro Project Co Ltd was recently registered with the Ministry of Commerce, suggesting the Chinese developer may be serious about going ahead. The firm is registered to the Beijing address of PowerChina, the parent firm of Sinohydro. Company director Wang Fei declined to comment.

“As Sinohydro needs a valid legal entity to sign a contract to proceed with Cheay Areng dam, the establishment of the Stung Cheay Areng Hydro Electric Project, Co Ltd is a bad sign that the government may soon approve the dam,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers.

Pov insists the resistance is not broken as he pores over a satellite phone used to feed information to activists outside the valley, hoping it finds a signal.

“The battle has not yet ended here,” he said.

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