Buddhits 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,
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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
SAVING THE ARENG VALLEY
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'. - Voice of America
Mother Nature Cambodia's (MNC) campaign to save the Areng Valley from being destroyed by a senseless hydro dam kicked off in 2012. Little known beyond the province of Koh Kong when we first got started, the stunning valley has now entered the hearts and minds of millions of Cambodians. Not just that, the successes achieved by our innovative, fearless, and passionate campaign continues to inspire Cambodian embattled communities and environmental youth from across the country. Through the empowerment of local communities - especially women and local youth -, relentless posts on social media highlighting the area's beauty and the project's negative impacts, and acts of bravery seldom seen in other campaigns in Cambodia, we finally pushed the Cambodian regime and the Chinese energy giant Sinohydro to shelve the project.
The majestic valley, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of hectares of jungle-clad mountains part of the Central and Southern Cardamoms National Parks, shelters an awesome array of fauna and flora, with over 30 species of wildlife classified as rare or critically endangered. For instance, it is home to the critically endangered and locally-revered Siamese crocodile, one of the world's last remaining populations of the near-extinct dragon fish, one of South East Asia's most important populations of wild elephants, and many other amazing creatures. It is also where close to 2,000 members of one of Cambodia’s oldest ethnic groups, the Chong people, have lived for generations. These resilient people, who according to local tradition took shelter in the Cardamoms to escape from invasions by Siamese armies several centuries ago, played fundamental part in the successes of the campaign. Yes, Mother Nature Cambodia and other activists groups were very successful at publicizing the campaign to a massive audience, but truth is the fight to stop the dam would have been lost had it not been for the tenacity, bravery and cohesion of the local population in opposing this senseless project.
Some people have accused us of being 'too radical' with our direct-action methods, criticizing the risks we took in forcing the government and the Chinese energy giant to back off from building the dam. Truth is though that the standard approaches by Cambodian non-government organizations, those being mainly office-based, endless workshops, writing reports and 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. 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', a 'process' in which timber syndicates - acting with the connivance and support of key state organs - illegally extract timber from anywhere up to dozens of kilometers away from a dam's future reservoir, then fraudulently claim it has been extracted from the future reservoir of the dam. This is exactly what happened in several other dam's in Koh Kong and Pursat, such as the Ta Tai, Atay, Roussey Chrum, etc. dams, in the years preceding our campaign, and has been happening in and around the Se San 2 dam, a fact that even the repressive government of Hun Sen admits. 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 is, since February 2015, when one of the co-founders of our group was forcibly exiled from Cambodia 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).
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 rumors of a major road and high voltage transmission lines cutting right through the fragile valley and surrounding Cardamom mountains, always linked to massive environmental destruction in Cambodia; targeted logging and poaching of valuable (and increasingly rare) species, despite the only road into the Valley being manned by Ministry of Environment forest rangers funded by the international group Wildlife Alliance; and increasing pressure on the local indigenous communities' culture, traditions and way of life as land prices in the area increase.
In the next few years, with the aim of protecting this most stunning of terrains, we will continue to:
- Reinforce grassroots movements in the Areng Valley so they can fence off future threats to their existence by themselves;
- 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 land logging, poaching, land grabs, etc.
- 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'.