Would You Move Here?

Families that will challenge the hydropower dam development construction until their homes are flooded by the rising river level display signs from their properties that read “NO LS2”

Kbal Romeas Village, Stung Treng

Tree trunks carry the soft scars of children’s games that have taken refuge under the cooling canopy of leaves that overhang the carefully cleaned stilted wooden homes and flowing Srepok River. The trees and forest shrubbery that continue to reign over the village despite the drought are regarded with the greatest respect as they are home to the ancestors’ and forest spirits that have played witness to generations of commune activities. Piglets, puppies and chickens run riot as do the young monks and children who fearlessly bound down the drop to the water’s edge to escape the relentless heat on canoes. Fertile soil persuades fruit and vegetable crops to continue their crusade to adulthood in the face of rising temperatures, and the rice paddy fields and forest lay just beyond the homes, supporting subsistence farming and producing a positive economy in the village.

Relocation Site

The sun beats onto the dehydrated ground that’s littered with rubbish from trucks and travelers that fly past on National Road 78. Square cement structures sit in organized rows waiting for the new occupants to appear and find the house number they received through a ‘lucky-draw’ process. Electricity is promised for one year but the typically Cambodian array of black wires is yet to be found on the sky line which is also missing any friendly bursts of nature. Cramped concrete lavatories provide an interesting décor to the front of each house and are sat next to small blue water tanks, but their colour mocks the emptiness inside. A groundwater well meant to compensate for the empty containers has a broken pump and the promised “one-year warranty” came with a maintenance contact number that dials out. A commune official explains the five hectares of farming land each family were told they would receive is closer to four and a half, and until after the wet season it is unknown whether the land will be fertile enough to grow any crops. Space has been allocated for a market but for a community used to a subsistence livelihood, and with no access to the previous professions that provided extra monetary support, there will be no income to afford food and living expenses.

Where would you go?

The peaceful environment of Kbal Romeas Village is also carrying wounds of a lost battle.

Spray painted red numbers label the homes of the families that have  given in to the dam development companies minimal compensation, yet other families, who will challenge the construction until they are flooded by the rising river level, parade blue signs from their homes and trees that read “NO LS2 (Lower Sesan Two Dam)”.

The Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA) members in the community are committed to creating a conversation about the displacement caused by a private hydropower development downstream, and with the help of the three-hundred member strong organisation, have gained recognition from the government and private company.

“Everyone has equal rights.

“If you do something and it affects my life then of course I have the right to talk and be heard,” Kbal Romeas CIYA representative Mr Dam Samnang said.

With 60 youth members in the commune their combined voice has been loud enough to make national news and member Mr Rithy Vireak remains positive about their influence despite the impending move.

“If we don’t talk, then they [the development company and government] won’t come to visit us and they definitely won’t hear us,” he said.

While the material loss of the community will devastate everyday life, health and economy, it is the loss of the spirits that threatens the extinction of the Kbal Romeas identity.

Ms Yem Channy, who is from the village and a member of CIYA, explains the community connection to the nature that surrounds them and how it shapes their lives. 

“We are going to lose our identity if we move to another place.

“Here we have the spirits, the tree spirit and the river spirits, that we pay respects to every day.

“If we move we cannot bring them, then of course we are going to lose our identity,” she said.

Ms Channy explained that CIYA was vital to the negotiations with the company because they understood the values of the Kbal Romeas community.

“CIYA is very important in this village because they are also indigenous like us, we have the same identity and we understand each other.

“They understand our issues and our worries and if we didn’t have their help to facilitate meetings the community wouldn’t dare to talk to local authorities or the company,” she said.

The company has provided compensation to cover the cost of performing a ceremony to ask the ancestors spirits to join them in the new location.

Another ceremony will be performed at the resettlement site to show the spirits where the community has moved, but there is concern in the community that the ancestors will not come.

“If the dam is built then I don’t think I can protect our identity.

“It will be hard to protect our identity because we have to move to another place but our ancestors’ graves are here and we cannot bring them, we will not be together; it’s going to be hard for us,” Ms Channy said.

Mr Vireak explained the guilt of not being able to protect their ancestors’ land.

“As indigenous youth we have to protect our own community to protect our own identity, because if we lose the river, we lose the forest, we lose the biodiversity, and then we lose out identity, it feels so wrong that I cannot protect this village our ancestors left for us.”

The divide

The divide between the fifty-three families who have resigned themselves to their community’s fate, and those still fighting for their rights has made it difficult to form a united front against the company.

“The village has two groups now; the group that accepts the compensation from the company and decided to move, and the group that will not move even if the dam continues to be built.

“The two groups are currently arguing with each other because they have different perspectives, so in meetings the youth group work to facilitate the two groups to respect each others’ opinions,” Ms Channy said.

The general feeling is that without CIYA the community would never have been informed about the extreme impact of the dam and would not have been able to prepare campaigns that fight to protect their rights.

Out of those who have agreed to leave the commune the next decision is whether to accept one of the houses that were built, ready for their new occupants before the community had even heard of their relocation, or accept $6000 to build their own on the dry land by National Road 78.

“I want to tell the company that the project they are doing now is not respecting the Cambodian country, as well as the indigenous community here.

“The natural resources and the indigenous community don’t belong to the company so how can you just develop and do these kinds of projects?

“I want the company to respect human rights, the law and investment law,” Mr Samnang said. 

Youth action

The youth group observe the communication between the authorities and indigenous community to ensure the community is not taken advantage of, and are aware of the laws and land rights that protect them.

“I just ask the government to please care about all the community not only the families that agree to move.

“The families that aren’t going to move, they may not want to move but they are also your people so please take care of them as well, not only the family that agree with you,” Ms Channy said.

CIYA organised for the community to report the issues in cohesive statements to be sent to government authorities and the private company.

The Kbal Romeas CIYA team wrote to the Cambodian National Assembly and provincial governors asking for intervention in the construction of the Lower Sesan Two Dam.

A written response was never received but government representatives have since visited the village many times to hear the community concerns and a new committee for the response to the impact of Lower Sesan Two has been initiated.

It will be the first hydropower development committee that combines NGOs, government officials and community members.

The role of the members have not been finalised but currently five NGOs are involved as well as provincial governors, with the aim to discuss compensation, outcomes and resolutions.

There is still a glaring gap in the committee with no private sector participants involved.

CIYA, in association with a broader network, contacted the Chinese Embassy about the development, as it is a Chinese company building the dam, and while the embassy responded with a statement that they alerted the company to respect indigenous rights, there is concern the alert was either ignored, or never actually made.

Mr Samnang said there are opportunities from a business perspective to gain recognition from the company if they can highlight the bad reputation the Chinese businesses are creating for themselves in regional Cambodia.

“We try to find the opportunity to bring the youth group to talk to the company to let them know how serious the issues are if they continue with the dam.

“We will tell them about the effect on the forest because more than 30 000 hectares will be lost if the dam is built.

“These natural resources like water and forest do not belong to the company they belong to the community,” Mr Samnang said.

No financial compensation will be provided for the displacement but the company has promised itemised compensation of family goods, for example if a family’s land currently has a fruit tree they will be awarded US$10 for that tree.

 However the nutrition provided annually by that single fruit tree would be worth a much greater amount, let alone the longer term sustenance it provides.   

To ensure families do receive at least this minimal compensation CIYA has started an initiative to document the goods each family owns.

The idea is that if the compensation is not received the families will be able to present written evidence of what they have lost.

A loss for community development

An expected loss that can’t be recorded on paper is the halt in community development and impact on what was an improved situation for women and youth.

Ms Channy is one of four female youth representatives in Kbal Romeas who attend consultations with NGOs about women’s rights that she then shares with her village and she is concerned the displacement will limit women’s development in the community.

“When the dam is built and this village is flooded I believe women will be more affected than men because we have to take care of the animals and the house.

“We will not have time to communicate with other women in the community like we are doing now and the community groups with NGOs won’t be able to continue,” she said.

Mr Samnang said the increased education of the community through CIYA and opportunities to attend university had improved the displacement situation dramatically because of the knowledge youth could commit to advocacy, and he is concerned about the future of youth involvement in the community at the new site.

“From my point of view, youth play an important role in the development work particularly in the community.

“It doesn’t mean the elder generation couldn’t help the community but they are so busy taking care of their families that their knowledge is limited compared to youth.

“So I think youth play a very important role because we have time to think about the community issues and we have the knowledge of how to deal with other stakeholders,” Mr Samnang said.

The loss of Kbal Romeas’ ancestors’ spirits and graves, the effect on the identity of the women, men and children and the future generations, the material loss and the diminished development opportunities means that this indigenous community will cease to exist as they know it.

Mr Samnang summarised that a focus on producing material goods and hydropower will not sustain a country.

“We do not need the dam in our country because it is going to affect too much of the natural resources and environment.

“We cannot produce those natural resources back, even if we have money.

“We can make an electric city but we cannot bring the natural resources back.”

Note: The Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA) became a partner of Oxfam in 2015. Their objective is to raise awareness about sustainable livelihoods and to protect the well-being of indigenous communities living along the Sesan River. In March 2016 Oxfam visited members of CIYA and the youth group in Kbal Romeas Village to learn about the displacement of the communities in Kbal Romeas Commune; a result of construction of the Lower Sesan Two Hydropower Dam. CIYA works with the commune youth group to increase rights awareness and engage the broader community in protecting the natural resources along the river.  They also play an active role to ensure open communication within the community as well as with local authorities and NGOs.

Writen by Sarah Jane, Communications Intern, Oxfam