Months ago, Chinese engineers were posting markers for a hydropower dam opposed by villagers in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley. This week, in marked contrast, monks draped trees in iconic saffron sashes as they blessed the very forest the dam would destroy.
The saffron robes of 40 monks who on Monday carried 80 metres of cloth made for striking visuals as the group walked through the jungle of one of the most isolated parts of Cambodia.
The procession was part of efforts by the monks – who travelled from Phnom Penh – to save the Areng Valley from a long-proposed dam.
Venerable But Buntenh, an increasingly prominent dissident monk, came with a simple message to the locals.
“You are not alone. There are many monks with you,” he said.
In explaining his opposition to the project, Buntenh said that any profits that come from the dam, reported to be 100 or more megawatts in power, “will not reach the hands of the people”.
Traditionally, monks have been discouraged from engaging in politics. During the recent national election, their superiors warned them not to protest in the streets.
But Buntenh, who has been building a network of young like-minded monks around him, has dared to say that things don’t have to be this way.
The proposed Stung Cheay Areng dam, on the edge of the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, will impact one of the last and most biologically diverse areas of wilderness, left in Southeast Asia, environmental groups say.
The dam was planned by a Chinese company, China Southern Power Grid, and then shelved in 2010.
Another Chinese company, China Guodian Corporation, took over the project almost immediately. Despite this, confusion remains over if and when construction will start.
“To me, the Chinese engineers said there’s no money to be made because the generators will not generate enough electricity,” said Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a co-founder of NGO Mother Nature Cambodia, who helped organise the monks’ trip.
“One guy from some ministry in Koh Kong was saying it’s been approved, but something else needs to be sorted,” he continued. “But then it hasn’t been approved because if it’s approved, it’s made public – and the parliament hasn’t approved it.”
Two weeks ago, company officials had visited the area, Gonzalez-Davidson said.
“Everyone got really, really scared, but they didn’t get any information out to the people.”
When contacted this week, Sun Dara, the deputy governor of Koh Kong, said the provincial “authorities have not yet got official comment or advice from the Ministry of Industry, Mining and Energy” for the dam.
Adding to confusion about the dam’s current status, in April last year, the Post reported Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Cheam Yeap as saying “that which the government has already granted to the company we cannot withdraw”.
Journey of the monks
To reach the valley, the monks travelled by bus and car for nine hours before setting out on foot for the last 30 kilometres. The walk turned into a gruelling test of endurance as the monks – many only wearing sandals – struggled through the dark jungle for six hours.
About four hours into the walk, while crossing a small ad-hoc wooden bridge, a tired young monk turned and laughed.
“This is my first time and my last time,” he said.
About eight kilometres short of the final destination, motorbikes began ferrying the monks and tired journalists. A stubborn group struggled forward on foot, finally reaching the pagoda at about 1:30am.
The next morning, after blessing trees under the watchful eyes of local authorities, the monks headed across the valley for an afternoon swim – with armed police in tow.
“I feel compassion for even the police with their guns. We try to make good communication with them because they’re also Cambodian people,” said monk Ngin Saosam Khan.
Just a few kilometres downstream from where the monks swam, the locals say there are regular sightings of the Siamese crocodile, a critically endangered species, which according to NGO International Rivers, is already extinct across 99 per cent of its original habitat range.
Other rare animals that environmental groups say will be affected by the dam include tigers, elephants, pileated gibbons and the Asian arowana, a prized freshwater fish.
It’s not just the animals that are endangered. For some 1,500 people living in or on the edge of the proposed 20,000-hectare dam, forced relocation is certain should the dam go ahead.
Despite the area being the villagers’ ancestral lands, it wouldn’t be the first time they have been forced to leave.
In 1979, the Vietnamese moved families from their valley after pursuing a policy of regime change against the rulers of Democratic Kampuchea. When the locals were finally able to return – in the early 1990s – small bands of Khmer Rogue fighters still roamed the hills.
When the monks made their journey through the village, police armed with AK-47s monitored the procession and took photographs. Later, they entered the pagoda to speak with organisers.
Since leaving the valley on Tuesday, Gonzalez-Davidson said he has been approached three times by police. Upon returning to a guesthouse in Koh Kong town, he was told that officers had visited three times asking questions about him.
A provincial immigration official, Khon Mara, returned to the guesthouse on Wednesday and, according to Gonzalez-Davidson, told him that foreigners could be deported if they were security threats.
When contacted, Mara said he simply wanted to check Gonzalez-Davidson’s passport and visa.
The day before, Post staff and three other photographers were asked to provide their names and passports after leaving the same area.
The good life
Walking through the spectacular valley, Lucky, a young resident, spoke about the people’s “connection to their homeland” and the good quality of life.
The people who inhabit the eight villages that environmental groups say would be flooded by the dam have lived in Areng Valley for generations. Between the forest and river, the area provides an abundance of food.
The concerns of these residents are consistent.
Yung Pun, 57, was born in Pralay village.
She had heard the authorities would move them and felt villagers had no choice but to go.
“I don’t want to move.… We’ll lose our animals, forest … the house,” she said. “The new site that the government is moving people to is very difficult to live in. It’s a damp forest and has lots of mean wildlife like tigers and elephants, and has no rice fields.”
She claimed the site also lacks schools, access to water and fish and is far from sources of income.
“I would like to say to the world: please try to stop the government from doing this.”
But not all those affected have the same level of opposition.
Some 300 recent migrants to the valley, who have settled on the slopes and would only be temporarily moved, are resigned to, if not supportive of, the dam, after being promised a desperately needed health centre, according to Gonzalez-Davidson.
Despite the valley providing a rich life in terms of food and tradition, it doesn’t provide healthcare or adequate education.
The teacher at the local school, Sok Sa Rasmey, who has only a grade three education himself, sat in a single-room school with large holes in its walls.
He is opposed to the dam and instead wants to see the development of educational opportunities for his students.
“After hearing about the project, I am worried and deeply concerned of its effects on our livelihoods. And although we will be relocated, we worry that the new location is not good. Living here gives us happiness, and we see nature and animals,” he said.
The blessing of trees by 40 monks may appear unlikely to stop a Chinese company building a dam, though a recent case gives them hope.
A nearby titanium mine was cancelled in 2011 “due to the concerns of the impact on the environment, biodiversity and local livelihoods”, according to a press release from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office.
Gonzalez-Davidson said this decision was the result “of eco-tourism and NGOs and a strong movement by the people”.
The coming together of dissident monks, youth groups and locals, though at an embryonic stage, is a potentially potent mix.
The increasingly media savvy and assertive Cambodian youth had a huge, and unexpected, impact on the recent national election.
If the company cares only about the dam project in terms of its utility in aiding a more profitable project, it may only need to see its plan pushed across the ledger from an asset to a liability to consider abandoning it. And it is this thought that is informing the strategy of those seeking to prevent the dam’s construction.
The group of monks, led by Buntenh, plan to march on the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, seeking to pressure the publicly listed company.
At a time when the government is under unprecedented political pressure, time will tell how many monks break with the orders of their superiors and follow.
Either way, Buntenh’s call to action extends far beyond the Cambodian clergy.
“Now I’m calling on the whole world to join us to prevent and protect our forest, because I always think of and call myself the same life as the forest.”