Unsung Heroes: Mother Nature Activists Struggling to Protect the Areng Valley in Cambodia

(Originally published in the Peace & Justice News, March 2015).

The Areng Valley, in the Koh Kong province of south western Cambodia, is a rich social and ecological landscape. As the largest remaining expanse of rainforest in Southeast Asia, it is home to 20 ethnic groups – indigenous peoples who revere these territories as sacred – as well as providing a haven for biodiversity and endangered species, such as the rare Siamese crocodile. However, the Cambodian government, together with the Chinese company Sinohydro, has plans to construct a vast hydroelectric dam, which would submerge some 10,000 hectares of jungle, along with people’s ancestral homes and agricultural lands.

At the forefront of the movement resisting the government’s proposals for the Stung Chhay dam is Alejandro Gonzalez-Davison, aged 34, a Catalan resident of Cambodia during the past 12 years, who along with a local Buddhist monk co-founded the NGO Mother Nature in February 2013. Local communities and congregations of saffron-robed monks have mobilized to oppose the controversial hydro-project, most notably in March 2014, when they mounted road-blocks to prevent representatives of Sinohydro from carrying out their preliminary assessments of the area. Since that time, local people’s awareness of how the dam’s construction would impact upon their livelihoods has increased to the point where Gonzalez-Davison commented to Periodismo Humano that, “this is the first time that the community’s conscientization and opposition has occurred before expropriation was inevitable”, indicating strong reason for hope.

However, the campaign’s success and growing strength have drawn the ire of Cambodia’s political class, not least against Gonzalez-Davison, whose status as a foreigner places him in an ambiguous position. Chheang Vun, a spokesperson and deputy leader of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, has accused the Spanish activist of inciting Cambodians to turn against the authorities and criticised him for “delving too deep into Cambodian politics”. Gonzalez-Davison has responded bluntly, saying that many Cambodians remind him that had he been born in the country, he would probably already be dead. His comments are borne out by a Human Rights Watch report, published in January, which denounced the brutally repressive and corrupt rule of Hun Sen, who has now retained political power for 30 years, frequently by bloody means. Recently, the Cambodian government increased pressure upon Gonzalez-Davison by confiscating his passport and threatening to deport him. At the time of writing (21 February), it remained to be seen how this scenario would play out, though Gonzalez-Davison was adamant that he would not leave the country of his own accord.

Sinohydro is in fact the third Chinese company to assume control of the Stung Chhay dam project, after previous partners deemed social and environmental concerns too critical to ignore. Furthermore, they dismissed the dam as economically unviable, which has led Mother Nature to suggest that continued government backing owes more to corruption and hopes that the extension of infrastructure, such as roads, into the Areng Valley will open it up for further exploitation of its resources, in particular, timber.

The Cambodian government’s failure to consult those affected by their proposals may have sown the seed of resistance to their own plans, in the form of a movement galvanized to defend its forest home. Gonzalez-Davison is defiant: “Whatever happens, we will win. If they leave us alone, we will benefit. If they threaten us, we will benefit even more. If they arrest us or kill us, the reaction will be much more positive. Whatever the cartel of gangsters in power do, we are in a win-win situation because they are incapable of controlling a social movement like the one which is growing right across Cambodia.”

All translations from Spanish are the author’s own. Source: http://bit.ly/1DdmwIx

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