September 4, 2014

Have a little faith

In desperate need of electricity, Cambodia is ploughing ahead with Chinese-funded dam projects that are ravaging the environment. But a movement is harnessing the trust placed in monks in a bid to save the country's pristine forests. Words and pictures by Luke Duggleby


The 200-metre-long orange cloth snakes its way through the village of Ta Tay Leu and into the forest. Guided by Buddhist monks and villagers, it follows the path until it reaches a clearing.

The contrast here is shocking; emerging from the forest, this religious procession advances into what looks like a war zone. Only the largest trees, their canopies towering above the devastation below, their enormous buttresses too large for loggers, still stand. Around them lies smouldering land that is being cleared for a banana plantation. The monks pause, then make their way towards the remaining goliaths – to ordain them in the hope that their blessing will make others think twice before reaching for the chainsaw.

In an adjacent valley, a different threat is looming, one that would not only destroy the forest there but also flood the entire valley. If the Chinese-funded Cheay Areng dam project goes ahead, a large part of Cambodia’s Central Cardamom Protected Forest – a misnomer if ever there was one – will be lost.

CAMBODIA IS A COUNTRY in dire need of electrification. During its civil war, in the 1970s, its energy sector was seriously damaged. Once the Khmer Rouge took control, in 1975, it destroyed virtually all electricity related facilities.

When Cambodia eased into a state of peace in the late 90s, the government tried to rehabilitate the system, but internal fighting, lack of funds and other issues relating to the nation’s regression to year zero just a couple of decades before made that no easy task.

There remains no national grid and the vast majority of the population have no regular access to electricity. Less than 15 per cent of rural households, which account for about 90 per cent of the 15 million population, have access to electricity. The demand is increasing every year yet the government has insufficient capacity to meet it. Even the capital, Phnom Penh, sees regular blackouts. So it is in this sector that foreign investment has become particularly vital.

Areng Valley in Cambodia's Cardamom Forest is home to ancient trees and numerous endangered animal species. However, a planned hydroelectric dam threatens ...

“Cambodia is seriously short of electricity and recent power cuts show that the available supplies cannot meet demand,” says Mark Grimsditch, a British researcher hired by the World Resources Institute last year to produce a report on China’s investment in hydropower in the Mekong region. “The government has prioritised developing hydropower as one way to remedy this problem.

“Chinese hydropower companies are eager to invest abroad and have strong backing from the central government. Until recently, Cambodia was a relatively clean slate in terms of hydropower and so presented an excellent opportunity for Chinese companies looking to expand overseas. This has fitted well with Cambodia’s desire to develop the sector, and no doubt the strong political relationship between the two countries has facilitated the rapid expansion of the sector.”

Investors willing to sidestep international stipulations on large-scale development projects, such as hydropower dams, are appealing to a Cambodian government in a rush. Reporting precise funding figures from donor countries to Cambodia is difficult – much of what is approved is never delivered – but in the past 10 years, China’s investment here has increased substantially, and much of it has been poured into energy.

China is now the world’s largest developer of dam projects, having surpassed the World Bank several years ago. Globally, China’s wealthy state enterprises and banks have about 300 dam projects either in the planning stages or under construction in at least 49 countries. In Cambodia, 10 such projects, including the one that threatens the Areng valley, are at varying degrees of development.

THE CARDAMOM MOUNTAIN forest complex is vast. Broken up into a number of national parks and covering 20,000 square kilometres, it is the largest unbroken tract of woodland in Southeast Asia and by far the most pristine. The Areng valley lies in the 4,000-square-kilometre Central Cardomom Protected Forest (CCPF).

Other dam projects have been started or completed inside and around the boundaries of the forest. The Cheay Areng dam would be the fourth and by far the most controversial: not only would it submerge one of the last breeding grounds of the Siamese crocodile (once assumed to be extinct but now thought to number some 250 in the wild) but also one of the most biodiverse valleys in the country. Gibbons, black bears, Asian elephants and a host of other mammals thrive in the area.

Not only that, but up to 1,000 people from six villages that have been inhabited for centuries would be forced to relocate.

In Cambodia, forced evictions by an increasingly totalitarian government are rife; tens of thousands having been evicted from their land in the past decade to make way for development. In return for meagre compensation, the people of the Areng valley would be forced to leave their expansive ancestral lands, where they have everything they need for a subsistence living, for steep two- to three-hectare plots on an elephant corridor in the forest, with no space for rice plantations.

“I heard from other villagers that we will be leaving and that’s what everyone thinks will happen,” says an elderly villager who doesn’t want to be named. “We will only have the option of selling our buffalo and will be forced to leave our trees and our land behind.”

To make matter worse, the dam appears to make almost no economic sense. According to a report by International Rivers, an NGO that, since 1985, has fought to protect waterways around the world from destructive dam projects, the first Chinese company involved in the dam was China Southern Power Grid (CSPG), which signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cambodian government in 2006. In November 2010, it was reported that China Guodian had signed a new MOU after CSPG had withdrawn from the project.

The withdrawal came as little surprise, considering that the dam, at a cost of hundreds of millions of US dollars, might produce just 108 megawatts of power at best, an estimate based on the monitoring of water flow and likely reservoir size. To put that in context, a 36-turbine Dutch wind farm in the North Sea built in 2006 produces 108MW, enough to light 100,000 houses.

According to Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme director of International Rivers: “The Stung Cheay Areng dam’s environmental and social costs are likely to outweigh the project’s US$327 million price tag.

While it’s a large investment, the Chinese often benefit from the payment warranties granted to them by the Cambodian government. Cambodia’s poor governance also serves as an advantage for Chinese companies, as the true environmental and social costs associated with these projects fall on … the Cambodian government to remedy.”

Last November, China Guodian sent a team of engineers to assess the project’s feasibility. After three months in the valley, the engineers returned to China but, so far, they have made no announcements.

Undaunted by controversy, China Guodian, in November 2010, announced it would undertake a feasibility study for a much larger dam project – in the town of Sambor, in Kratie province, east Cambodia – that would completely dam the Mekong river itself. The consequences of damming such a major river would be catastrophic, say conservation groups.

“It’s unclear what Chinese banks will finance [the Areng valley] project,” says Ame Trandem. “However, this project was proposed as part of a US$6.4 billion deal for 16 infrastructure projects that was inked when Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, travelled to Cambodia in November 2010. At that time, Wu was reported as saying Chinese financial institutions would likely provide financial support.”

“YOU ARE SURROUNDED by mountains. You have no telephone coverage and no electricity. Since the first time I went [to the Areng valley] I have felt like I was stepping back in time 100 years,” says Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish-British man who moved to Phnom Penh in 2002, found a job as a trainer and translator in a large Cambodian company and has lived in the country ever since. “Khmer is spoken as it was hundreds of years ago and you hear people speaking this ancient form of Khmer everywhere. It’s not only the magical beauty of the valley itself, nature-wise, it’s the people as well.”

Having learned the Khmer language to a level of fluency very few foreigners achieve, Gonzalez-Davidson has made almost 30 trips to the Areng valley and surrounding forests since 2009, forming a relationship with the area’s people.

When rumours of the dam began to resurface in 2010, he realised the valley could be lost forever.

“In any other country in the world this dam would simply not go ahead, the valley would be declared a world heritage site,” he says. “Why destroy an area that size for just 100MW of power?” Spain, he says, is constructing solar panels which, covering an area of just two to three hectares, can provide 50MW of power, “and this [dam] could flood up to 20,000 hectares of protected forest! It doesn’t make sense”.

However, he has learnt in his time in rural Cambodia that the power of Buddhism is strong and the respect shown to monks enormous. In a system built on corruption at every level, from police to politicians, monks are among the few people trusted by the citizenry. And it is this trust that he believes could be built on, creating a Buddhist movement led by monks that might help save the valley and surrounding forests.

In April last year, Cambodia’s most famous environmental activist, Chut Wutty, was murdered. For years, Chut Wutty had fought to expose illegal operations in the Cardamom and regularly took journalists in to see such activities for themselves. It was during one such trip, to expose the illegal logging of rose wood, that he was shot dead by a military police officer protecting the operation.

Chut Wutty believed in the power of the monks and often worked in collaboration with them. After the shooting, Gonzalez-Davidson, who says he has received death threats for his own activism, contacted a close associate of Chut Wutty to ask if he knew any monks who would be interested in leading a tree-blessing movement in the Areng valley.

Step forward Brahm Dhammasat. At 42 years old, the monk has seen a lot of change in the Cardamom. His home is Aural village, a two-day walk north of Areng, on the slopes of Cambodia’s highest mountain, Phnom Aural. His valley is much easier to access than Areng and, despite being part of a wildlife sanctuary, has also been devastated, in this case by logging and sugar cane plantations.

“Ever since I was a child I have seen how the world has been changing around me and the destruction of the environment has increased more and more,” the monk says. “I want that to change and see the world become more sustainable, where people are dependent on nature and nature is dependent on people. If that doesn’t happen, the cycle of life will be broken and there will be no more species left on our planet.” Gonzalez-Davidson persuaded Brahm Dhammasat to go to Ta Tay Leu, which is outside the valley but inside the CCPF, to lead the first tree ordination in this part of the Cardamom. This is a test run before the monks are sent in to the Areng valley itself, a much more fraught undertaking.

Monk-led environmental activism has proved successful in another forest, in northwest Oddar Meanchey province. In 2002, a monk called Bun Saluth prevented its destruction by teaching people about the importance of natural resources. The result was the legal protection of 18,261 hectares of evergreen forest now called the Monks Community Forest.

Susan Darlington, professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Hampshire College, in the United States, and author of the book The Ordination of a Tree, which looks at the Thai Buddhist environmental movement and its activist monks, explains: “If the monks and organisers work closely with the community involved, including them in the planning and implementation of the blessing and concurrent projects for protecting the surrounding forest, the rite would help cement a commitment to conservation. People need to feel they own the rite and the project, and understand how it benefits them in the long run.

“In Thailand, the robes on trees are beginning to be more effective because the whole country now knows about the rite; the symbolism of a tree wrapped in a monk’s robes has slowly entered the Thai conscience enough that, hopefully, loggers hesitate when they know a forest has been consecrated and is taken care of by local people,” she says.

Gonzalez-Davidson, who has quit his job in Phnom Penh and is registering an NGO called Mother Nature to help continue the movement in Cambodia, remains realistic. He knows he is facing an uphill struggle and that this spiritualist activism is just one of the tools that can be used to save the valley and prevent further destruction of the surrounding forest. He also knows the real fight must come from the local people themselves and hopes the monks can be the driving force to make them realise this.

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