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Cambodian Indigenous Minorities Fighting Tide of Development

Sah Phon can live with some grief from his ancestral spirits.

The elderly villager abandoned them in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province in favor of a relocation package after learning his homeland would be swallowed by an enormous dam. But he’s confident they will forgive him.

“If we do something wrong, we pray in accordance with our traditions; for example [sacrificing] pigs and chickens for praying. And we pray so that we can be recovered,” he reasons.

Once a fisherman from Sre Kor village near the confluence of the Sre Pok and Se San rivers, Phon has watched as fish stocks have dwindled over the past few years.

Some blame the dam construction, others destructive techniques such as electro-fishing but all agree the population of fish is rapidly shrinking.

Relocation offer

So with his village set to be flooded and his primary source of income dead, Phon took a relocation offer early. He says he was the first.

The swift decision paid off. Phon struck out in a relocation lottery with a house right next to the entrance road of Kbal Romeas Thmey (New Kbal Romeas).

He built up a business selling household wares in the prime location and says he’s doing fine.

“It's different because it has a highway — an ASEAN highway,” he boasted as his grandson hooks bait to a line — practicing the skills of his grandfather’s dying profession. “Before I could not transport any goods. Now I can. The truck can get into our home to transport goods. Whatever I need, they can reach my home.”

Phon has been lucky, but there are only so many general stores one village can support and not many others are as enthusiastic about relocation.

That includes his brother, Sah Voeurn, who like thousands of ethnic minority villagers facing eviction, is pained by the prospect of abandoning a fundamentally different way of life.

“I really don’t want to live there. The situation is difficult, there’s not enough water. It’s mountain land and it’s rocky and sandy and very difficult to do agriculture,” he said.

Behind the rows of shiny blue new roofs at the relocation villages each family has a small plot of land. On the surface, the village looks quite nice.

Inadequate compensation

Away from the prying eyes of company representatives and local officials monitoring the area, many quietly complain that opportunities to generate income are scarce, the soil is poor and personal movements are heavily restricted.

Voeurn feels so strongly against relocation that he has traveled the long journey from Sre Kor to Kbal Romeas to join a community protest — a trip made harder by multiple police checkpoints attempting to restrict access to the area.

“The government is building the dam to get more income for the government, not for the villagers,” he said on the eve on a pig sacrifice with 50 Bunong families that are holding out and trying to stop the dam

The 400 megawatt Lower Se San II, which is Cambodia’s largest dam so far with a flood plain of 335 square kilometers, hasn't just stirred controversy because of the roughly 4,000 families it will forcibly displace.

It has far wider implications for fish stocks, conservationists argue.

More than 9 percent of the fisheries for the entire Mekong river would be lost because of the Lower Se San II, according to a report in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Science.

Even an environmental impact assessment commissioned by the dam’s developers and approved by the Cambodian government in 2010 found the impacts on fish would be severe, as it would block migratory species.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy did not respond to multiple request to comment on the impact of the project.

With Cambodian’s energy demands predicted by some estimates to triple between 2012 and 2020 and supply already heavily reliant on imports, the government argues the more than $800 million project will supply much needed power to five provinces.

Debates rage about how this benefit stacks up economically against the loss of fish and impacts on water flow and quality.

What none of the arguments over figures can appreciate though is the value of a fundamentally different way of life, or whether affected villagers will attain a better standard of life by being dragged into the formal economy rather than living effectively off grid.

“The native people have a way of life opposite to mainstream people, native people consider nature as friend and don’t have a passion to own,” says Loek Sreyneang, a project officer at Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association.

The scores of families holding out want an audience with the government, but that has not been forthcoming.

So instead they have taken their case to the provincial court, arguing the development amounts to a systematic attack on indigenous people and thus a crime against humanity under Cambodian law.

That desperate final act will almost certainly have no impact and in weeks their houses will be underwater.

“I can feel their misery to leave from home, a fatherland which they have lived in for ages,” Loek Sreyneang lamented.