Deep in the forest, about an hour from Stung Treng’s provincial capital through a rough and difficult road, just over half of the houses in an ethnic minority village have been tagged with bright orange spray paint saying, “LSS2”.
The houses are marked if the family agrees to relocate from an area Cambodia’s largest hydropower dam to date, the Lower Sesan 2, is set to flood.
According to a 2010 environmental impact assessment, the 400-megawatt dam will destroy five villages and displace about 5,000 people.
“Those who agreed to leave do not want to leave, because they already have houses, farmland and crops here. But they are worried about the future when the flood comes. They do not want the new location, but they have to go because of the dam,” said Kru Yu, 63, chief of Kbal Romea village where the houses have been tagged with orange paint.
In a monthlong survey of 374 families in Kbal Romea, Sre Sranok and Chrob villages that was completed last week, provincial authorities found that 84 per cent of the residents have agreed to relocate.
But in Kbal Romea, a Phnong village, 40 per cent of the families still refuse to move.
“The people demanded a plot of 50 metres by 100 metres and not 20 metres by 50 metres, and we do not have compensation for our ancestors’ graveyards,” said Siek Mekong, chief of Srekor commune, which wasn’t part of the census.
When Mekong’s community held their own survey, they found that 90 per cent disagreed with the relocation plan because it didn’t meet their compensation needs.
The proposed relocation site, 20 kilometres from the national road, includes five hectares of farmland for each family along with the promise of houses that have yet to be built, although relocation is set to start early next year.
Developers of the $900 million dam project, financed partially by tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group, have also said they will build health centres, wells and schools for the villagers. But none of the infrastructure has yet materialised, though construction on the dam is well under way.
In July, villagers asked for a five-year delay on the project so a comprehensive relocation plan that took villagers’ concerns into account could be developed.
“We have paid much attention so that we ensure our people do not lose benefits, but their demands are too high to meet,” said Duong Pov, Stung Treng provincial administration director.
Kbal Romea villagers who have agreed to move said they did so out of resignation and fear. “We cannot win. The company and the government are close. They have power and we do not want them to abuse us like they do the Boeung Kak villagers [in Phnom Penh],” said Keo Thy, 37, who has agreed to leave her home.
For Thy’s neighbour, leaving means more than giving up his home and ancestral land.
Forty-eight-year-old Sean Choeun has earned his living through fishing, and at the relocation site, removed from the river, his family would have to find an alternative income.
“Everyone is very concerned about this dam plan, but I do not agree to go yet, so that I can see how high the flooding is . . . If it is too high, I will go,” he said.
But fisherman living downstream of the relocation sites who do not fall under the proposed compensation plan, warned that the dam may sound a death knell to living off the river.
“We will face floods when they open the dam, but when the dam is closed, we cannot catch a single fish and will face toxic chemical substances and some species will be extinct,” said Loa ethnic villager Phao May.
May pointed to where the company was filling soil and pumping water out before constructing the foundation of the dam.
“When I see that, I feel sorry for the loss of the natural scenery, biodiversity and ecosystem,” May said.