Dammed if you don’t

February 15, 2015

Monks areng

As someone who has been threatened with deportation from Cambodia for speaking out about the preservation of the country’s resources, I feel very strongly about a story that has popped up in recent days.

Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng has ordered the authorities not to renew the visa of a 34-year-old Spanish environmental activist called Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, which expires next week.

Gonzalez-Davidson works for an NGO called Mother Nature. I’ve never met him, but he seems a thoroughly balanced, sane and committed man. He has been in the country since 2002, and speaks fluent Khmer.

His NGO is trying to stop the Cambodian authorities building a hydroelectric dam in the Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest of the country.

The Areng Valley, in Koh Kong province, is in the country’s last pristine natural forest. The valley is home to some 1,300 members of the ethnic Chong community, who have lived in the area for centuries. Besides their livelihoods, the Chong would lose their ancestral spirit forests and burial grounds if the area is flooded

The Areng Valley also contains the habitats of at least 30 rare and endangered animal and fish species, including the Siamese crocodile, of which there are thought to be fewer than 300 in Cambodia.

On the other hand, the hydropower project would supply some 108 MW of power. It is to be built and operated by a notably wonderful Chinese firm called Sinhydro.

“The population would be forcibly displaced to a place which, judging by the standard relocation sites we have seen in this country so far, would be equal to abject poverty and total squalor. No water, no fertile land, no access to markets, without access to traditional sources of medicine, food, construction materials,” Gonzalez-Davidson said recently.

He also dismissed Hun Sen’s promise of jobs for the families if the project went ahead. “One only has to take a visit to any of the under-construction dams in Cambodia to see that most of the jobs actually go to outsiders such as migrants from other parts of the country and hundreds of Chinese nationals … not to the population living nearby.”

But it looks as if Gonzalez-Davidson is going to be removed from the fight. Sok Phal, the director-general of immigration, said that the decision not to renew the Spaniard’s visa was made after local authorities in Koh Kong lodged a complaint about his activities.

When asked if it was because of his environmental activism, Sok replied, “Don’t ask me that. I can’t comment on it; I only do technical work.”

Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut said: “Alex made trouble with local authorities in Thma Bang district. He took the car of his NGO to block my deputy governor’s group who went to visit the villagers in the Areng area.” Which sounds pretty bad to me.

Ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Chheang Vun has been gunning for Gonzalez-Davidson for several months. “I am taking up measures with competent authorities to check whether that foreigner is permitted to operate in Cambodia, confront the authorities, and animate people to jostle with authorities.”

He went on: “Cambodia is too lax, it’s too easy for a foreigner to make an entire region socially unstable, and he excuses his actions by saying he is protecting the people like this or like that,” the National Assembly member said.

Gonzelez-Davidson said that there was “no doubt” that the decision to deny him visa renewal was related to his anti-dam activism. “They will have to deport me. I will throw as many eggs as I can at their face,” he said, vowing not to leave the country before his visa expires.

As award-winning Cambodian filmmaker Kalyanee Mam has said: “this is not an ‘anti’ Areng dam movement, but more a movement to protect Cambodia’s natural and spiritual heritage.”

 

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One Response to “Dammed if you don’t”

  1. Richard said

    Dam building along the Mekong and its tributaries is a weighty topic and has vast social, political and environmental repercussions. Who will control the flow of water? Sometimes it is pretty difficult to understand how these projects help local populations and history does not smile on them generally!

    Cambodia has already lost most/all of its primary rain forest and this will not help!

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