The campaign to save the unique Areng Valley from senseless destruction did not only involve direct activism activities. In this picture, local Buddhist novice monks return to the local temple after an evening trying out the newly-arrived kayaks. The Valley has become one of the country's best known spots for nature adventure tourism. Image by Daniel Hoshizaki, October 2013.
Construction of the Areng Valley hydro-dam was stopped by our campaign, proving a decisive victory. It also established Mother Nature Cambodia as an organisation, placing it firmly on the map as an effective force, capable of producing meaningful change, even in the face of the dictatorial Cambodian regime. The dynamic energy that the campaign created, went on to empower other causes, including self-determination by the Areng Valley’s Chong ethnic inhabitants, towards recognition of their Indigenous Rights.
When in 2012, the Cambodian government announced that it had reactivated plans to go ahead with a Chinese backed hydro-power dam project in the remote Areng valley in Koh Kong province, alarm bells rang out. This valley of farm communities along the Areng River, passes through pristine forests on the valley slopes and river banks. Abundant wildlife includes rare species, not least the wild Siamese crocodile, which could still be found in the Areng River and surrounding oxbow lakes. Its numbers worldwide had dwindled to a mere 250 [IUCN Red List], making this habitat crucial for its continued existence in the wild.
The dam to be constructed by Chinese dam-building giant Sinohydro Resources, was set to cost US$300 million and produce a mere 108 megawatts of electricity, considered poor value for money by experts. The reservoir would flood anything from ten to twenty thousand hectares of farm, forest and river habitat and submerge the homes of 1600 people, most of them Indigenous People, with a historical claim to the area of several hundred years.
Dam in the Pipeline
China Southern Power Grid originally considered the project in 2006 but declined the contract citing feasibility difficulties. The project was then picked up by The China Guodian Corporation which commissioned the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), approved in 2011. The EIA report and research conducted by Research and Development Enterprise SBK on the dam's impacts and mitigation options remained unreleased to the public, even after the project received apparent Government approval in 2012.
The final forest
Decades of logging and plunder by the regime, had seen Cambodia’s great forests felled and trucked abroad. Since 1990, it is estimated that the country has lost 84% of its primary forests [UN FAO] due to some of the highest logging rates on earth. Majestic tropical forests had been reduced to scrubland and denuded of their biodiversity. Farmers complained that weather patterns had grown hotter, and the natural resources on which many communities depended country-wide, became a parched, dustbowl.
People were cast into greater poverty and indebtedness grew. With their farmlands stolen, people often had little option, but to migrate to the factory towns springing up around so-called 'tax free zones', for wages that were meagre if not outrightslave-like. State sponsored land theft remains rife to this day, and is a cornerstone of state strategy, to deprive people of their natural wealth and common-rights.
Now those sharks who had led the assault on the country’s great forests, were circling one of the last biologically integral forests remaining - The Areng Valley, part of the majestic Cardamom Mountains, to this day one of Asia's largest tracts of forest. Communities, activists and environmentalists looked on in horror. While some groups continued to negotiate for conservation concessions, those activists and communities that would go on to form Mother Nature Cambodia, made a clear commitment to the forest and each other. Drawing a line in the sand at the head of the Areng valley, together they vowed that the dam builders, “Will Not Pass.”
So it was, that a valley little known beyond the province of Koh Kong, where we first got started, entered the hearts, minds and folklore of millions of Cambodians. Stirring the wrath of the regime, was not a task to be taken on lightly. Our innovative, fearless, and passionate campaigners inspired embattled communities and environmental youth throughout the country. Galvanised through common purpose, they began to converge from far and wide, to support the Areng communities.
With their houses and farmlands scheduled to be submerged beneath the dam reservoir, local people stood to lose everything. Having visited the proposed relocation site of Veal Thom, on a steep forested hillside unsuited for farming and with no water supply, locals knew that their situation could worsen dramatically overnight, and with scant compensation. Conservation groups were also unhappy with this site, because it lay across a migration route important for endangered Asian elephants.
Activists staying in the valley shared information with community members, and brought local people, especially women and youth, together to discuss the situation, to find common purpose, and collectively to decide the best course of action.
The valley’s relative isolation from the outside world was a mixed blessing. It deterred all but the most adventurous visitors, especially during the rainy season when the dusty trails turned into muddy streams. It was also beyond phone signals, making campaign organising a severe challenge. A social media based campaign rapidly gained traction, highlighting the threat to the area's beauty. Videos, quickly produced by activists in the forest, started to capture the imagination of ever bigger Facebook audiences. Very soon ‘Save the Areng Valley’ had become a national issue, discussed endlessly in newspapers and coffee shops. By this point the campaign was just finding its feet, and a long struggle lay ahead before the dam would finally be shelved.
Nature’s emerald jewel
The majestic valley, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of hectares of jungle-clad mountains part of the Central and Southern Cardamoms National Parks, shelters a magnificent array of fauna and flora. Over 30 species of wildlife are classified as rare or critically endangered. As well as the critically endangered and locally-revered Siamese crocodile, it is home to one of the world's last remaining populations of the near-extinct dragon fish. Elephants, sun bears, pangolin and marbled leopards still roam the forests. The valley is teaming with birdlife with Great hornbills, kingfishers and birds of prey, regularly sighted.
No-one knows for sure when the valley was originally settled, though ancient sites of burial jars have been excavated in the area, some of them from the 12th centuries. The Indigenous Chong people comprise the majority population in the valley villages, numbering around 1600, and thought to be one of Cambodia’s oldest ethnic groups. These resilient people, who according to local tradition, took shelter in the Cardamom mountains, to escape from invasions by Siamese armies several centuries ago, played a fundamental part in the successes of the campaign. Had it not been for the tenacity, bravery and cohesion of the local population in opposing this senseless project, the campaign would have never been the great success it was.
When early in 2014 Chinese dam surveyors showed up in the Areng Valley, we decided that if such activity were allowed to continue uninterrupted, it would become harder to stop the dam. So in May we decided to set up a camp on the dirt road connecting the valley to the wider world. Choosing the highest point at the entrance to the Valley, we set up tents and hung banners. Activists from all quarters were quick to arrive and support the blockade camp.
The initiative proved successful because each time the surveyors arrived in their vehicles, they were blocked from proceeding into the valley and told to leave. On one occasion a group of our protesters were arrested and removed. Five times the surveyors tried to pass and failed.
The first threats to refuse to renew the visa of MNC Founding Director Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, came from a government Minister in December 2014. In the following weeks it became increasingly clear that his visa would not be renewed, so the choice was either to leave the country or overstay. He chose to stay, and within days was arrested in Phnom Penh and on 23 February 2015, deported from the country. Since then he has continued his work from afar, and campaigned to be allowed to return to the country having previously lived there for twelve years. Some people have accused us of being 'too radical' with our non-violent direct-action methods, and have criticized the risks we took in forcing the government and the Chinese energy giant to back off from building the dam. However, all the signs were that the standard approaches of Cambodian non-government organizations were not slowing the dam. Office-based groups organising endless workshops, writing reports and declaring the odd public statement, would have not stopped the dam.
Others, on the other hand, have accused us of being anti-development, arguing that as Cambodia lacks 'cheap and reliable' energy, dams such as this one are sorely needed. This argument, however, fails to take into consideration a simple, yet vital fact: the proposed dam would have made no sense from an economic point of view, and it was even previously rejected by two other major Chinese energy companies - China Southern Power Grid and China Guodian - due to the dam's low return on investment and large impacts.
A monument to corruption, stopped in its tracks
The dam was, simply put, a blatant excuse for corrupt members of the Cambodian elite to make millions in kickback payments. On top of that, as we have seen time and again with other dams across the country, dam construction would have come hand-in-hand with 'timber laundering'. This is a process in which timber syndicates - acting with the connivance and support of key state organs - illegally extract timber from the surrounding area and sometimes many kilometers from a dam's future reservoir site. They then fraudulently claim it has been extracted from the future reservoir of the dam.
Clear evidence of such supposed reservoir forest clearance over-stepping the boundary into the surrounding forest area, is well documented. For example, in Koh Kong and Pursat Provinces, dams including the Ta Tai, Atai and Russey Chrum experienced such illegal logging, before the Areng project. More recently the Government has admitted that such practices took place around the Lower Se San 2 dam in Stung Treng Province, which was opened in December 2018.
What did the Cambodian government have to say about us at the height of the campaign? Well, that we were trying to create a 'secessionist movement', that we were 'anti-development', or that we were 'puppets of the opposition' hell-bent on 'keeping Cambodia poor and without electricity'.
Despite this, since our Director’s deportation, on direct orders from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the highest echelons of the Cambodian government started following up pretty much all of the campaign's demands. Most remarkably, they switched their argument from saying that the dam was a vital part of the country's energy needs to saying it would cause 'massive environmental impacts' and 'inhibit potential revenue through eco-tourism in the billions' (these were the words by Hun Sen himself, believe it or not).
Many Chong people living in the valley, were in the early days, understandably silent about their true ethnicity. For decades the Government had denied the existence of ethnic diversity in the country, claiming instead that everyone was Cambodian. As the campaign proceeded, it was noticeable how the local communities found their voice, and began to speak out against the dam project ever more loudly. Indeed one of their leaders, Veng Vorn, was imprisoned for taking a stand. Wrongfully accused by state apparatus of illegal logging he spent time in Koh Kong jail. His conviction was debunked as ridiculous, especially given his history of fighting for forest protection.
While opposing the dam was the issue that initially brought local people together, it soon led the Chong people to demand recognition for their Indigenous Rights under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which the Cambodian Government is a signatory. Mother Nature Cambodia has joined with the Cambodian UNICEF office in continuing to support The Chong claim for Communal Land Titles which is making progress, despite ongoing government opposition.
While the dam seems to be mere distant threat, other dark clouds loom over the valley’s inhabitants and the area's unique ecology. Regular rumours have been reported of major road building schemes. A project to route high-voltage electricity transmission lines right through the fragile valley was also reported.
Other widespread and ongoing risks to forest biodiversity include illegal logging and poaching of valuable (and increasingly rare) animal species. Policing of these issues is notoriously difficult in Cambodia owing to complicity and involvement by state law-enforcers in these lucrative trades.
In the next few years, with the aim of protecting this most stunning forest area, we will continue to:
- Reinforce grassroots movements in the Areng Valley so they can repel future threats to their existence and build community resilience.
- Effectively monitor the implementation of any projects by the government, especially those related to infrastructure development such as roads, high-voltage transmission lines, etc. These are always a cause for major concern in Cambodia, as these 'development' projects tend to come hand-in-hand with logging, poaching, or land grabs.
- Assist the campaign for local communities to obtain communal land titles, something which is by no means easy but that seems to have finally started taking off.
- Turn the whole valley and surrounding Cardamom Mountains National Parks (Central & Southern) into a hub not just for quality tourism but also scientists and other nature enthusiasts, especially Cambodians.
The relationship between nature and the 'Chong' people of Areng is as strong as ever. The valley is one of the last places in Cambodia where one can still this relationship, the rest of the country's indigenous communities having already been uprooted due to unchecked, senseless 'development'. Mother Nature Cambodia, October 2014.
Government officials from the Ministry of Environment, disguised as 'independent researchers' acting on behalf of the Chinese energy giant Sinohydro, attempt once again to enter the Areng Valley to conduct phony environmental Impact Assessment of the dam. They were stopped from entering by local communities and activists from across the country. Image by Daniel Hoshizaki, April 2014.
The campaign was characterized from the beginning by its use of strong, beautiful pictures, in many cases made viral on social media platforms, especially Facebook. The valley sits smacks in the middle of two of the country-s most important National Parks, the Southern and Central Cardamom National Parks. Image taken from atop a helicopter in 2011, while a team of researchers were approaching the Valley while looking out for ancient burial sites. Image by Luke Duggleby, 2011.
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To this day, the Areng Valley remains free from any large-scale 'development' project, without doubt a result of unity, innovation and bravery by countless people. However, the threats and challenges remain, and it is the responsibilities of all Cambodians to preserve this stunning terrain. Image by Daniel Hoshizaki, September 2013.
SAVING THE ARENG VALLEY
Buddhist monks travel to the remote and highly threatened Areng Valley to bless trees and empower the local indigenous communities ahead of the upcoming arrival of the Chinese dam builders. - The New York Times - July 2014,
Few have visited the remote and pristine Areng valley in the Cardamoms, the latest target in the government's push to turn Koh Kong into the "battery province", until now. As the race to stop a hydropower dam slated for construction in the valley accelerates, a group of monks have joined the front line to try and save this natural treasure.
The Phnom Penh Post - November 2013
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The Areng River is one of the very few remaining places in the whole of Southeast Asia that continues to have a population of Siamese crocodiles. A combination of local people's beliefs and traditions, conservation efforts, and the valley's remoteness have all contributed to this rare feat. Image by Luke Duggleby, November 2012.
This is a video of a ceremony which happens only once every three years to honor the forest spirits and to seek their protection. Land and water is the root of the natural and cultural identity of the indigenous inhabitants of Areng, the 'Chong'. - September 2015 - Voice of America