In the government’s latest defense of a proposed dam in the heart of the sparsely developed Cardamom Mountains, Prime Minister Hun Sen in a letter downplayed the impact the project would have on the hundreds of ethnic minority families it would displace and touted its likely benefits.
The January 15 letter, obtained Tuesday, is a response to a request from opposition lawmaker Te Chanmony to consider canceling the project, which would force more than 1,300 Chong to abandon their ancestral lands and flood a 9,500-hectare area that is home to some 30 globally threatened animal species.
In his letter, Mr. Hun Sen tells the lawmaker the dam would flood land the families have been using for hunting and farming. Besides that, he says, “the implementation of the Stung Chhay Areng hydropower dam will not impact the traditions and culture of the ethnic minority community.”
Despite the government’s repeated assurances to the contrary, the families and environmental groups —who want the project canceled—fear that construction of the dam has been approved in secret and could begin at any moment. Sinohydro Resources, the Chinese firm that wants to build it, has already signed a contract with a Chinese construction company.
The prime minister assures Ms. Chanmony in his letter that feasibility studies were still underway and would inform the government’s decision about whether to proceed with the project.
“Currently this project is under study and has not yet received a final review,” he says. “The Royal Government will not develop the hydropower dam in the Areng area if the studies show that the losses stemming from this development are huge compared with the economic and other advantages.”
Those other advantages, Mr. Hun Sen says, would include tax revenue from the dam’s construction, job creation for locals, eco-tourism opportunities and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when locals switch from burning charcoal to using hydropower.
The government has built several hydropower dams in recent years and is pursuing the construction of more in a bid to bring down Cambodia’s high energy costs. The Stung Chhay Areng dam could add an additional 108 megawatts of capacity to the grid, though the previous backer pulled out after deciding that the project was unlikely to deliver.
The Chong in the valley, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, are one of the last intact communities of the ethnic group left, according to Conservation International. They have been living there for generations and would lose, besides their livelihoods, their ancestral spirit forests and burial grounds if the area were flooded.
The government has yet to settle on a relocation site for the Chong if they were forced to move. But Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of Mother Nature, one of the NGOs helping the community fight the dam, said the manner in which past evictions have been carried out boded ill for the families.
“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,” Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said.
The environmental activist also dismissed Mr. 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,” he said.
Ms. Chanmony, the secretary of the National Assembly’s agriculture commission, said she received the prime minister’s letter and stressed that it should be up to the families in the valley whether the dam gets built.