The Lower Sesan II dam project is a microcosm of the carving up of Cambodia. In one of the world’s most diverse river ecosystems, the ground burns. Whole forests are felled with scant regard for the law, while the project is backed by the country’s politically connected business elite.
Here, at the confluence of the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers, the dam will flood an area half the size of Singapore. The early stages of construction of what will be Cambodia’s largest hydropower project began in November, according to construction workers at the site. At the dam site on Friday, several diggers were at work, as the sound of chainsaws and the crackle of bulldozers felling trees filled the air.
The 420-megawatt dam is a joint venture between Cambodian tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group and Hydrolancang International, a subsidiary of state-owned China Huaneng Group, which formed Hydropower Lower Sesan II Co Ltd in November 2012.
Var Sokheurn, 56, said Hydropower Lower Sesan II forced him off his land at the construction site in November last year. He now lives with his relatives and four other families in tarpaulin tents squeezed along a sliver of riverbank abutting the construction site.
The families, once farmers, now scrape together a living selling Angkor beer – produced by Malaysian tycoon Khoo Teng Keat’s Mega First Corporation, which is building the Don Sahong dam in Laos – to the workers.
Sokheurn has rejected an offer of between $7,000 and $8,000 for his land, which is already lost. As the hum of chainsaws and clatter of diggers nearly drowned out his voice, he said he would not be moved.
“Never will I leave here. I do not want the dam to be built here, because I and the next generation will suffer from it forever,” he said.
Migrant workers from across Cambodia have been drafted here to operate the machinery. Two construction workers from Kandal province at the site on Friday said they were paid $200 per month and were treated well by their employer, but knew little of the project.
Vang, a newly arrived construction worker, said the workers “do not have any problems yet”, adding that the company was still in the process of building proper accommodation for them.
“I want to take the boat out to visit the river,” Vang said. He added that he spent most of his time at the site with Sokheurn and the other displaced farmers, because he loved to watch the river flow.
Logging concessions for the reservoir have been handed to Royal Group subsidiary Ang & Associates in a joint venture with Cambodian businessman Sok Vanna, brother of petroleum magnate Sok Kong.
The logging firms had their contracts suspended on October 16 following allegations that they were illegally logging in community forest.
The government ordered an investigation into the allegations, but no investigation was ever launched, the Post reported this month. Campaigners against the dam and villagers last week supplied reporters with dozens of photographs taken since the logging concession was suspended, claiming they were taken in the reservoir area.
On Thursday, the Post found evidence of significant logging of luxury wood within a 20-square-kilometre community forest across the river from Srepok village. In coming years, it will be felled entirely, then flooded. Villagers and campaigners say this is just one example of a pervasive disregard for the concerns of the community.
Government demining teams were hired about two weeks ago by the companies to prepare the protected forest for clearance in March, and still the locals have not been informed about the details, much less consulted. The relocation site that villagers in Srepok were offered by the companies is located around three kilometres inside the forest which, when the dam is finished in 2019, will be at the bottom of the reservoir.
Indigenous people in the area believe that the spirits of the forest will take revenge for the project going ahead after the reservoir inundates Srepok’s ancestral burial grounds.
“We are an ethnic group that lives with a deep connection to the spirits of our land, water, villages, mountains and forests, and our ancestors,” said Chan Thun, a 78-year-old village elder in Srekor. “So when we are relocated, we will be cut off from the spirits, who will be angry with us and curse or mistreat us.”
It is not clear from where the $816 million that the Lower Sesan II is estimated to cost is coming.
A spokesman for ANZ, the Australian bank that partnered with Royal Group to form ANZ Royal, said the money comes from a state financial institution in China.
“I understand the finance is provided by China Development Bank,” said Paul Edwards, ANZ’s group corporate communications manager, via email yesterday.
Edwards said ANZ itself has not funded the project through its partnership with Meng’s company, adding that questions about the Lower Sesan II were “really a matter for the Royal Group”.
“They are ANZ’s partner in ANZ Royal Bank.… ANZ and ANZ Royal Bank have no involvement with this project whatsoever,” he said.
A woman who answered the phone at the China Development Bank in Beijing yesterday said no one could talk about the matter as it was not a workday.
The Mekong River system, flowing through China, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, provides a vital source of income and food for an estimated 60 million people. Along the Sesan River alone, it is estimated that up to 50,000 Cambodians rely on the ecosystem for survival. About 5,000 people will be forced to relocate over the next five years.
But villagers know few details of the companies’ plans.
“The provincial authority did not come to talk to us about the dam project until November 23, 2013, when the provincial government told us to move to the new location, because the project would begin soon,” Thun said.
Local authorities, however, said yesterday that the villagers were “confused” in their accounts.
“I know where they will be relocated. We discussed with them a few times already in the affected communes, and we still continue to tell them about the benefits of the project and compensation for them,” Duong Pov, Stung Treng provincial administration director, said.
“In short, they will maybe have a better standard of living than the old place. We [will] prepare for them everything.”
Post reporters travelled to the relocation site across Srepok River from Thun’s village on Thursday. From the opposite bank, it’s a difficult journey to the site on a Thai-made tractor. There is no infrastructure in the community forest where the site is located. There are, however, logging camps, which locals claim are run by Meng’s Ang & Associates.
“This [logging camp] is run by Kith Meng, by the powerful oknhas [tycoons],” said Phar Tuy, 39, pointing towards a pile of timber he said was cut last year. “Police, soldiers and military police, they help and protect the companies, but not us. The land of the oknhas is everywhere.”
Meng yesterday twice hung up on a reporter, and did not respond to emails outlining the Post’s findings in the area.
Thun said the authorities warned the villagers not to oppose the dam in the meeting last November.
“They told us not to be against the project, because it’s a national development of the government. We all need to decide the new location to live [together].”
But despite residents offering up their own suggestions to an EU-funded NGO tasked with studying their needs, they say they were not listened to.
“The first location is not good for farming, because it is gravel, stone and a barren area. Besides farming, we catch fish for our livelihood. If there’s no fishing and farming, we do not know how to survive,” Thun said.
Twelve families from another village downstream from Srepok have already accepted the companies’ offers, relocating to another site.
“The poverty will not reduce, [the relocation] will create more and more poverty,” Thun said. “We and the next generation will suffer from this kind of development from now on. Our natural resources are destroyed and the next generation will not know it any longer. No forest, no work and no livelihood.”
The Royal University of Phnom Penh sent a team to assess the quality of the relocation site, villagers said. The researchers studied the water levels and found the groundwater contained hazardous toxin levels. Plans for a well were scrapped, and the villagers, if they move to the site, will have to rely on a stagnant pond for their water needs.
Tuy told the Post that the lack of potable water and the destruction of the community forest, which is relied on as a source of medicinal plants, will lead to sickness.
“The river water is constantly moving, so it does not have a lot of problems. But the pond water at the new location is stagnant and will make us ill,” he said.
Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network (3SPN), which has opposed the dam’s construction for years, said last Monday that the low quality of the land offered in compensation deals would lead villagers to seek unregulated work in neighbouring countries.
“This is the big concern, that the farmland has no quality, that it will start a migration of people moving to other countries,” he said, adding that the situation was further complicated by the government’s readiness to allocate land concessions, which regularly overlap with existing contracts.
“I don’t know which [concession] the government really wants, it not clear to me because they already granted [a] land concession to the [Hoang Anh Gia Lai] company, and now they granted [a concession for the hydropower dam], so the hydropower will create a big reservoir, so it will be [flooded], and the land concession will be underwater,” he said.
Near the logging camp in Srekor community forest, seven deminers from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) appeared around a bend in the track.
“In two weeks, we found nothing, but we hope to find some [mines] soon. We will work here until March,” said Nou Veasna, 46, a deminer with CMAC. “We get paid by the dam company to search for mines here."
Villagers said that the company was searching the whole community forest for explosives in preparation for clearing the entire area, a claim that Veasna supported.
He added that the team was also searching for bombs dropped by US planes during the Lon Nol regime, when Washington carpet-bombed rural Cambodia.
Mean of 3SPN said that while the law on protection of community forests was clear, enforcement of the law was rare.
“The national resource protection law is very clear, but implementation is different,” he said.
Women stand to be particularly badly affected, as they are often responsible for gathering water and growing food, an undertaking which is dependent on the free-flowing Srepok River.
Vann Thea, a 40-year-old tailor, said that she would not relocate of her own free will.
“We all want to live here; we do not want to be relocated whatsoever. We were born here and need to live here,” she said. “We were told that here will be flooded, everything flooded, and our plants will be drowned. We were told, ‘if you are not afraid of death, stay here’.”
Cavalry not coming
Srekor’s village chief, Leang Saroeurn, 38, was busy building a new office for the commune government on Thursday. He said while villagers did not want to move, they could not stand in the way of the development.
“Everywhere will be flooded. We do not want to have the dam built, but it is a government project, so we need to follow [the plan]. It is a development project,” he said. “We cannot stop it. We do not know what will happen when the relocation starts. It will be very difficult to dismantle our homes and rebuild.”
In Srepok village, Thun called on the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, to take its seats in the National Assembly, so that it could better campaign against the dam.
“In the political deadlock, the [Cambodian People’s Party] holds power and can do whatever it wants. Our problem can be solved more easily when the CNRP [joins] the National Assembly,” he said.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said that during a trip to Stung Treng in November, he recorded all the things that the villagers were saying – including that they were prepared to “die on their land” rather than be relocated.
“I’m preparing to raise these things with the government,” he said.
Chhay acknowledged that the CNRP was “limited with what we can do outside the system”, but said he was still doing the work of a lawmaker in readiness for more talks on a possible political resolution.
“Any [political] compromise has to take into consideration the environment – we have to at least protect the people and the country from further destruction,” he said.
“I have already put some documents in writing.…They must put a stop to deforestation and hydropower dam concessions.”
In the Srepok community forest, villager Tuy spoke of the lack of hope that now pervades the area.
“When we are sick, we can get medicine from our forest, but when it is lost, we will have nothing and we will spend money on buying wood, stones and bricks to build new homes. But we do not know how to make money. We will need money to buy everything. We do not know how to survive, so we will die.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL QUINLAN AND SHANE WORRELL