The minister of mines and energy on Monday said a new private-public working group will study the impacts of a proposed hydropower dam in Koh Kong opposed by hundreds of resident ethnic minority families and find them an adequate resettlement site.
A Cambodian consultancy, SBK Research and Development, has already been hired by the Chinese company approved to build the dam, Sinohydro (Cambodia) United, to study the social and environmental impacts of the proposed 108-MW Stung Chhay Areng dam and the needs of the Chong families slated for eviction.
At a meeting on Monday in Khemarak Phoumint City, Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem said SBK would be joined on the study by officials from the ministry and provincial government and Sinohydro representatives, according to provincial mines and energy director Pich Siyun, who attended the meeting.
“The joint working group as soon as possible will go to study the impact of the Areng dam project and a relocation site for the families who will be displaced by the project,” Mr. Siyun said Tuesday. “The minister explained to the authorities that we will develop so that the families do not suffer.”
Whatever site the group selects, he said, the minister proposed building new homes for each family on 1,000-square-meter plots, giving them five hectares each to farm, building a school and other infrastructure, and compensating them for food-bearing trees, crops and animals.
The families vehemently oppose the project, which will flood some 20,000 hectares of the Areng valley for an accompanying reservoir. The flooding will see the destruction of their ancestral lands, sacred forests and burial sites as well as critical habitat for some endangered species.
Since mid-March, dozens of villagers have been standing guard in shifts over the only road leading in and out of the proposed project area vowing to stop any efforts to move in construction equipment.
With SBK already hired to carry out the impact assessment, Mr. Siyun on Tuesday conceded that the new working group was intended not so much to help with the actual work as to ease SBK’s way in the face of the community’s resistance.
“The company cannot go alone, so the technical working group will go to compromise with the villagers about the project. After that, SBK will go to conduct its study,” he said. “We don’t want any problems with the villagers, so they should let the government do its work.”
He said the group would try to meet with the families in the valley this week but would not say which day.
But just as they have vowed to keep SBK and Sinohydro out of the valley, Ven Vorn, a representative of the families, say they will keep the working group out as well.
“We will protest to not let the joint working group access to study the Areng dam project because we will lose our traditions and our natural resources,” he said.
“I haven’t heard of the government’s plans yet, but I think it is a government trick to build the dam, and in the end the villagers will suffer.”
Though the government says Sinohydro has not yet been given the final go-ahead to build the dam, the families are convinced that it wants to push through with the impact assessment and a feasibility study all at once and that the project is all but approved.
A March 7 letter from the Mines and Energy Ministry, obtained by the families, orders the provincial government to let Sinohydro proceed with a feasibility study at the project site replete with mapping, drilling and soil sampling.
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of the NGO Mother Nature, which is helping the families, said he heard from commune officials at Monday’s meeting that the working group was looking to clear the way for drilling equipment as soon as possible.
“They will do everything in one go…that’s how they normally do it. If they do it the right way,” he said, with consultations and impact assessments first and feasibility studies after, “it would linger on and people would be able to organize.”
By doing it all at once, he said, “people are more inclined to accept compensation when there’s a bulldozer next to your home.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)