Pol Ham, the chairman of the National Assembly’s agriculture commission, flew by helicopter from rural Koh Kong province deep into the Areng Valley on Monday to inspect the site of a controversial proposed dam.
The opposition CNRP lawmaker was visiting the area ahead of scheduled appearances by the ministers of environment and agriculture at the National Assembly next week.
On Tuesday, he said the trip had convinced him that that ethnic Chong families living in the valley were adamantly opposed to the 108-megawatt Stung Chhay Areng dam, which would force them to leave their ancestral land if it is built.
“The opinion of many of the villagers was that they don’t want…the proposed hydroelectric dam, which will affect their ethnic-minority culture and livelihoods,” he said. “They have asked the government not to build the dam.”
Mr. Ham said the trip also led him to believe that the electricity produced by the dam would not be worth the damage it would do to both the Chong community and the protected forest they live in.
“In my opinion, the result of 108 MW of electricity in exchange for impacting all the natural resources and culture is, for example, like going to buy goods that are very expensive,” the committee chairman explained.
“When I flew in the helicopter, I saw thick forest, and I want to keep that forest.”
The helicopter was provided by the NGO Wildlife Alliance, according to Mao Monivann, a fellow CNRP lawmaker who joined the trip.
A video posted online by CNRP President Sam Rainsy shows a public forum in the valley hosted by Mr. Ham in which members of the local community voice opposition to the dam.
“We live here dependent on the natural resources. If they cut down the forest we don’t know where we will take shelter or what jobs we will have as ethnic minorities,” a man says. “I will send a message to the prime minister to cancel the dam and to do ecotourism [instead], to make a profit for the government.”
Environment Minister Say Sam Ol confirmed that officials from his ministry accompanied Mr. Ham on the trip but referred further questions to ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap, who could not be reached.
On Monday, lawmakers will have the chance to question Mr. Sam Ol at the National Assembly on issues including the Areng dam, which the government has said will only be built if cleared by environmental and social impact assessments.
The Chong villagers and NGOs helping them worry the government will approve the dam regardless of the results of the assessments. A Chinese construction company recently announced that it had signed a contract with the company backing the dam.