Magazine article Geographical

Defenders of the Forest

Magazine article Geographical

Defenders of the Forest

Article excerpt

Cambodia's remote Cardamom forests offer a last refuge to numerous endangered species, but they are under threat from land clearances and a proposed dam. Now, efforts to save the forest have led to the formation Pof an unusual alliance.

Our destination is the remote Areng Valley--a 56-kilometre journey through the jungles of Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains along what's more of an overgrown path than a road. I climb aboard our dilapidated, luggage-laden scooter with some trepidation.

The hidden valley is home to 1,600 people, mostly members of the Khmer Daeum indigenous group, which has lived in the valley for at least 600 years. It's also one of the last remaining refuges for 31 endangered species, including one of the only known breeding sites of the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, whose wild numbers have been reduced to only 200 globally.

But this sanctuary is now under threat. Plans are afoot to dam the Areng River, flooding more than 20,000 hectares of farmland and supposedly protected forest along the valley.


Arriving in Areng village, I climb off the scooter, stretch aching limbs and brush off the dust. Nearby, a group of locals crowds around a radio in a small noodle shop. Cambodia's president, Hun Sen, is making a rare visit to neighbouring Thmor Bang to conclude his four-month, nationwide land-titling scheme, the government's attempt to appease the growing number of people unhappy about appropriation of their land by the country's elite.

The president is discussing the Areng dam, which forms part of a wider hydroelectric programme for the region. The potential in Koh Kong [province] for development is huge,' he says. 'It will have four hydropower plants to provide energy to several provinces.' The programme is part of the government's plan to meet Cambodia's growing demand for electricity, which is forecast to double by 2020.

As with hydroelectric projects the world over, the plan is proving to be controversial, with the Areng dam especially so. Backed by Chinese investors at a cost of 200million [pounds sterling], the dam has been described as 'inefficient' by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), an independent governmental body that coordinates official development assistance for the Japanese.

JICA's report for the Cambodian government points out that the dam's modest output of 108 megawatts will come at a high cost--both monetary and in terms of area to be flooded. This may at least partially explain why the original development company, China Southern Power Grid, pulled out of the deal in 2010.


Ame Trandem, the Cambodia country director for NGO International Rivers, says that details of the project under the new management remain obscure. The project's environmental impact assessment was approved by the government in 2011 but hasn't been released to the public, so it has never been up for public scrutiny,' he says.

According to the original assessment, 900 of the valley's 1,640 residents will be forcibly relocated. Local people remain unclear about the terms of compensation and exactly where they'll be relocated to. They have to rely on outdated information as no-one has spoken to them about the situation since the project was taken over by the China Guodian Corporation. This is despite the fact that the company's survey teams have been active in the valley recently, indicating that work is proceeding.

According to the government's relocation plans, the valley's inhabitants will be moved to the village of Veal Thom, adjacent to the reservoir. But there are fears that the village is too small to accommodate all of the families, and that the land they will be allocated (three hectares per family) will be insufficient to sustain them. The village also lies in the path of an elephant migration route, setting the scene for conflict between villagers and the endangered mammals. …

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