Indigenous People in Northeast Cambodia Fight to Protect Their Cultures and Lands Against The Lower Sesan 2 Dam
For the indigenous peoples of Cambodia, land and forests are a major spiritual part of their lives and a living link to the spirits of their ancestors and nature. Hundreds of ethnic Punong, Tampuan, Kreung, Brao and Laos communities living along the Mekong River and its tributaries are fighting against the Lower Sesan 2 dam in northeastern Cambodia that threatens not only livelihoods and food security but also their cultural practices and beliefs.
For these ethnic communities, lands and forests form a part of the community’s cultural identity and sense of wellbeing. In the forest enclosures, the communities pray to these spirits, invoking their help in retaining the spiritual and physical strength and health of the community. The loss or degradation of their lands and forests has a major impact on local cultural practices and beliefs.
Besides the majority ethnic Khmer, Cambodia is a multi-ethnic society comprising Cham, Chinese and Vietnamese. The remaining population is composed of indigenous peoples under different names,1 belonging to two distinct linguistic families. The main groups are Austronesia speaking Jarai, and Mon-Khmer speaking: Brao, Kreung, Tampuan, Punong, Stieng, Kui and Poar.2
Indigenous peoples as a whole are to be found in at least fifteen provinces in Cambodia, but they are mostly established in five provinces in the country’s northeast: Ratanakiri, Steng Treng, Kratie, Mondolkiri and Preah Vihear.3
Filled with impacts: Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project
The Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project is located on the Sesan River in Sesan District, Stung Treng Province, 1.5 km downstream from its confluence with the Srepok River and 25km from where the two rivers meet the Mekong River mainstream.4
In 2007, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between Vietnam Electricity (EVN) and Royal Government of Cambodia, Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy. EVN is a Vietnam state-owned economic corporation involved in procuring electricity supply for Vietnam.
In 2008, the feasibility study was undertaken, and in 2010, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was done and quickly approved by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC). In 2011, the joint venture was initiated between Royal Group and EVN, and later registered as Hydro Power Lower Sesan 2 Co. Ltd. In 2012, the Council of Ministers of the RGC approved dam construction. In 2013, the government approved a law on guarantee of payments for the LS2 dam.
Dam construction commenced in 2014 following the approval of policies related to the regulations and legal procedures for resolving compensation and resettlement by the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy. In 2015, the local authorities started the compensation process with the local people which involved the resettlement from the dam site of most of the villagers in Chrob village.5
In July 2015, in a public forum as part of the compensation process in Stung Treng town, about 100 villagers to be affected by the dam visited the dam construction site and the new resettlement areas near National Road No. 78. The villagers were explained about compensation by representatives of the Secretary of Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Steng Treng governors who provided guarantees for housing, to halt its construction and to carry out a research on upstream impacts.6
While considered as a “tributary dam”, LS2, if built, will have major impacts on the fisheries and biodiversity of the entire Lower Mekong Basin. It is expected that the dam will cause a 9.3% drop in fish stocks basin-wide, putting more than 50 fish species into extinction, according to a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). LS2 will also alter the hydrology of the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Lake, reducing sediment flows by approximately 6.0 to 8.0%. The impacts of LS2 will be felt both downstream as far as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and upstream in Laos and Thailand.7
The project’s resettlement and compensation programs have not provided genuine solutions for housing, food security and livelihoods for the affected people. For the ethnic peoples, the non-economic losses in terms of culture and beliefs are very important considerations.8
Ethnic communities raise their concerns through a local community worker
Since 2013, Samnang has been actively working to help ethnic communities raise their concerns about the Lower Sesan 2 dam.
Samnang is 30 years old, married and with one child. He lives in Kbal Romeas village, Kbal Romeas commune, Sesan district, Steng Treng province. Since his younger days, he has been interested in community concerns and plays an active part in the commune and village meetings.
Although is from the Kreung ethnic group, he often presents himself as from the Panong ethnic group, because he can speak Panong language very well, and he understands the tradition and cultural practices. Moreover, the Kreung and Panong cultures are similar, and he says he has the heart of the Panong culture. Panong is the main group in Kbal Romeas9 village in Kbal Romeas commune in Sesan district.
Local activism in the Lower Sesan 2 dam campaign
Since 2013, Samnang has been active in the campaign on the Lower Sesan 2 dam. The Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), a local NGO, has conducted trainings with him and others in the village so that they can become paralegal officers, and assist the community members with writing and submitting letters to voice local concerns.
Due to this active community work, Samnang is also increasingly viewed as a threat by authorities at the provincial and local level or by other influential interests who dislike his community activism.
Given the situation in Cambodia where local activists and even media and lawyers can “disappear” or be killed for threatening commercial interests, Samnang has to take precautions when he travels around the village areas. He often changes his clothes, in case he is being followed and takes the plate off his motorbike when he reaches the town so that he is not clearly identifiable. But despite these threats, he is not afraid, just more careful. Each time he receives any threats from unknown people, he assures himself that he should not be afraid as he is doing the right thing for the communities. He says that if he himself is afraid to challenge influential interests, then the villagers will also have fear.
Talking about the problems with the Lower Sesan 2 dam, Samnang said: “The Se San River provides us with fish and food to sustain our livelihood. It is an important river for the ethnic peoples who live here. But the dam will take this away. The river benefits many people who lives along it and also outside. The river provides fish that every person in Cambodia eats. The dam therefore affects everyone.”
Taking action against the dam
The seven affected communes of six indigenous peoples: Khmer, Panong, Tumpoun, Kreng, Preov and Laos, have jointly submitted a petition letter to National Assembly. The petition stated that “the government and company have to ensure quality of house construction in the new location and delay community relocation for one year. The dam builders also have to give assurance that the community sacred forest will not be harmed.”10
The communities do not want to move from their original homes unless the compensation issues are addressed effectively. The government needs to ensure their new resettlement areas have good housing and provides health, education and safety services. But the most important concern for the communities is whether they can continue with their cultural practices.
- Cambodia Indigenous Peoples in ASEAN, AIPP, 2015
- Indigenous People in Cambodia, NGO Forum, 2006, from http://www.icso.org.kh/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/UNPFII-on-Issues-Affecting-IP-in-Cambodia-2009.pdf (retrieved 26 Jan 2016)
- Fact Sheet Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project, Northeastern Cambodia (retrieved 26 Jan 2016)
- Regional Public Forum “Mekong and 3S Hydropower Dams: Peeple Voices Across Border on the River Crisis and Way Forward” (retrieved 26 Jan 2016)
- Kbal Romeas means ‘head of the rhinoceros’