Ethnic Chorng villagers in Koh Kong province have raised concerns that a controversial 20-kilometre road under construction in the Areng Valley will threaten their traditional way of life.
Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to build the road last August in response to a request at a public forum by social media celebrity Thy Sovantha, who claimed a new road would boost the local economy by bringing tourists.
Environmentalists and locals, however, were quick to point out that the road was just as likely to bring environmental degradation and illegal logging, while providing dubious benefits to residents.
On Monday, representatives of the local Chorng community met with a local activist to air their fears that the road will make the region more accessible to outsiders, who will disturb the Chorng way of life.
“We are not against the government over road construction, we just appeal to them to focus on [making it] effective for the villagers and natural resources,” Hing Pov, one of the villagers, said by phone yesterday.
“When they develop the area, more people will come to live and develop things; our way of life will be lost, and the next generation may not know our Chorng traditions.”
According to indigenous rights activist Ngach Samin, the forests of the Areng Valley are essential to Chorng livelihoods and culture. “In the forest they can collect traditional medicines,” he explained. “They can collect honey and they can hunt wild pig.”
Ministry of Environment spokesman Sao Sopheap, however, dismissed villagers’ concerns yesterday. “[Local people] need the road to improve their livelihoods by having access to places where they can sell agricultural produce and open eco-tourism activities.”
But the villagers’ belief that the road will bring outsiders who will pillage the environment and upend local traditions was supported by the assessment of long-time conservationist Markus Hardtke.
“[The Cardamom forest] is one of the last relatively untouched areas in Cambodia,” he said. “If you have a road, it is easy access to poachers and loggers,” he said. Roads, he added, lead to “land-grabbing along the roads, which means deforestation in the hinterlands”.
If a road is built, he concluded, “you will have business, gas stations; it will be the end for the forest, most likely”.