STUNG TRENG, Cambodia: “I will die here.” These are the words, emblazoned in red, now painted across the front of several wooden homes in a remote Cambodian village.
Sre Kor is a peaceful place. But turmoil and uncertainty flow through this community with the same power as the adjoining Sesan River.
Soon, the hundreds of families living here, many of them for generations, will be moved elsewhere. About half have already agreed to relocate. Others have said they will not. Not for anything.
By next year, however, it is expected that the plains upon which this settlement sits will be engulfed as the nearby Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam project begins operations.
In just moments, a landscape that has taken millennia to form will be dramatically reshaped.
This is permanent. Culture and memory will be swallowed by floodwaters, a deluge designed to power Cambodia’s future. There is no time for sentiment; the past will be swept aside in the name of progress.
Still, those who call Sre Kor home, like thousands of others along these tributaries of the mighty Mekong, cling on, unwilling to accept a future anywhere else.
“This village (has been) my homeland since my ancestors' (time),” said Pa Vi, a 52-year-old elder. “The life of my family and other residents is very good and peaceful. We rely on the river, the nature and the environment,” she said, sitting cross-legged in one of the houses with the message of defiance painted on the exterior.
She is one of many refusing to give up their land and home. Negotiations are ongoing with the government and dam developers, but it remains unclear if any sum of money can usurp nostalgia.
“The culture and tradition are really important to the community. We have been through the genocide regime,” she said.
“The important thing is the graves of my parents. Even if they give me $100,000 to buy the land where I buried my parents, I would still reject it. I’d rather die with my parents in this land.”
She is not alone in holding such strong feelings.
Fellow resident Fout Kheoun speaks with romanticism about a simple life by the river, “the blood vessel in a person’s life”. “We have rice fields and we can do farming. We have enough vegetables. If we want to catch fish, we can just take the net,” he said.
But change is coming; it is all around him. As he tightly grips the oars on his long boat and paddles slowly against the flow, his eyes are full of anguish.
“Some residents were forced to move out and some were not allowed to live along the river. For me, I will definitely not move out even if I die. I will never move out from my river.”
Yet, there seems to be no holding back the tide.
ABUZZ WITH AMBITION
When it comes to hydropower, the Lower Sesan 2 project, across the Sesan and Srepok rivers - tributaries of the mighty Mekong River - is Cambodia’s most ambitious. It spans eight kilometres, will have a dam wall standing 75 metres tall and is meant to generate 400 megawatts of power.
The reservoir behind it will be more than 30,000 hectares, much of it forest that is being ferociously cleared for profit. Nearly 5,000 people have been or will be shifted from their upstream homes.
The dam has been developed through a tie-up between Cambodia’s sprawling conglomerate Royal Group Co. Ltd. and Hydrolancang International Energy Co. Ltd. - the two owners of the project. The developing Southeast Asian nation’s insatiable thirst for electricity, combined with a mutual desire for major infrastructure investment, saw US$816 million being earmarked for the project back in 2012.
Objections to the environmentally controversial project began almost immediately. Consultation with local people was light; proper environmental impact assessments were generally absent.
Officials are aware of the conflicting dynamics that such developments bring.
“The environment is the first priority for the government for all projects,” said Tun Lean, Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Mines and Energy. “We have to balance the economic aspects with the environmental aspects.”
But there are serious, unresolved concerns about the impact of the project on the local river ecosystem, especially on the migration of fish, which provide food to millions of Cambodians who live along the Mekong and by the downstream Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake.
“From the beginning, it was not transparent or accountable,” said Oudom Ham, EarthRights International’s Cambodia Coordinator. “The Lower Sesan 2 is one of the sensitive cases. Many people told us they were not well-informed and were not properly consulted and their concerns were taken away.”
Today, the dam site is abuzz with activity. Chinese workers sit perched on skeletal scaffolding above the monumental walls, their angle grinders dancing with fire. The Lower Sesan 2 is about two-thirds complete now.
A new road has been constructed through parched grasslands into the heart of the project - it is noticeably smoother than any other around Stung Treng. Halfway along the way is the rather plush, resort-style accommodation being used by the developers. The modern structure is one of many near the dam project. Hundreds of villagers now live in newly created contemporary community hubs.
These are the people who have agreed to move. And they face a drastically different life from what they have experienced before.
A NEW REALITY
Row upon row of identical concrete homes, all painted yellow with blue corrugated iron roofs, present a snapshot of how this part of rural Cambodia is being transformed.
This new estate - called Sre Sronuk Thmey - looks very different from the communities which its inhabitants have come from.
As dark clouds threaten overhead and heavy raindrops started to fall, the curated dirt street outside turned to quagmire and children playing on their bicycles rushed back to the sheltered patios built at the front of each house.
The houses would not look out of place in any town in Middle America - they are like nothing seen in these parts before and offer a potential standard of accommodation far beyond what most people in the area could normally afford.
It was difficult to hear Bay Kuy over the cacophony above his head as the downpour grew stronger. But the former-soldier-turned-rice-farmer was relaxed as he sat on the floor of his new home.
Bay agreed to be compensated with this new piece of land and house, abandoning his old village, which lies directly in the hydropower dam's flood path.
He is still adjusting to his new surroundings - he moved just weeks before - but said this type of house is something he could never have built or afforded on his own. The community, he said, is not used to living in “Western-style” houses though.
“I don’t know if it is easy or difficult to live because I haven’t gotten used to living here yet,” he said. “I don’t think about my old village because now I am in the new village.”
He and others here have access to the main road to Stung Treng’s main market, a brand new school and eventually a connection to the power being generated by Lower Sesan 2.
However, the 49-year-old lamented that he no longer has what he needs to survive - namely food and water - readily available like before. The river, which he could see from his old home, is now far away, about as far as the rice fields he will work at during harvest season.
“I remembered that when I lived at my old house, I had many fruits and vegetables around my house. We could sell and eat them. It was easy.”
“THEY NEED TO PROGRESS”
The Cambodian government is steadfast in its defence of the negotiation process with locals and the generosity of its compensation.
“Everything is better than before and it's only the spirit of the old place they miss,” said the government’s Tun Lean.
“They need to progress, why do they still live there, with no school, no electricity? How to learn? How to get the information from radio or TV? In the new place their lives will improve. “
He said that all of the families had already agreed to relocate when the project was first raised with them, and he blamed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for changing their minds.
The team at the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT) - one of those NGOs - tries to help deliver agreeable outcomes for both the relocated communities and the dam developers and government, a lengthy and trying process that is still ongoing in many cases.
Its coordinator in Stung Treng, Mony Chenda, suggested that disagreements have arisen due to a lack of consultation and a perception the project was going ahead, regardless of the feelings of locals.
“All the problems that the community have raised, we tried to persuade the government or the company to solve the problems for the residents,” he said.
“The information is not broadcast widely, so the community didn’t know much. They should not hide any information. They should share the information with each other,” he said.
Tun said the government was learning from this process, taking its cues from Vietnam’s past experiences of negotiating relocations, and that overall there was no doubt people would be better off now.
“We have to (find a) balance - the project or moving people or the effects on the environment,” he said. “Some people only know how to cut trees and fishing - (they have) no skills. We are training people to learn.”
Oudom Ham, who has also been closely monitoring the negotiation process, said there have been major missteps.
“In every step, the community or affected peoples should still have a chance to talk and negotiate,” he said. “But it’s not the case with Lower Sesan 2. The dam is already going ahead and you cannot go back. Their voices haven’t been heard.”
The villagers of Sre Kor are trying to change that. After all, they consider this fight one of life and death.
“This river is like mother’s milk,” Fout Kheoun said, as waves gently splashed against the side of his wooden boat on the Sesan. “Without it, we can’t live.”