Deep in the rainforest in northeastern Cambodia, where the landscape changes from dusty red to a verdant green, and where muddy potholes bar entry to all but the sturdiest of vehicles, lies the peaceful village of Kabal Romeas.
Built in the traditional style of the Phnong indigenous people, the homes stand tall and proud on their wooden stilts, and small children, chickens and piglets scurry in the shade of their solid frames.
Set Nhal, 89, cannot remember any other home. His family has lived in this village for countless generations. He remembers when the French colonisers ruled in the nearby city of Stung Treng, when the Vietnamese invaded in the late 1970s after the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge and when his father and grandfather were buried in this village.
But soon, Nhal’s whole life, and his traditions, will be quite literally washed away. The Lower Sesan II hydropower dam, a 400-megawatt hydropower project, lies on the Sesan River, a tributary of the larger Mekong River just 25 kilometres from Stung Treng. The project is set to come online this year after nearly three years of construction. Its reservoir will flood the two villages located upstream, one of which is Kabal Romeas. The rice fields, the houses, the land on which chickens and pigs forage, even the coconut trees towering high above the forest cover, will be submerged.
Cambodia suffers from a significant energy shortage, a fact that makes electricity in the Kingdom the most expensive in the region.
Imports from neighbouring Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam accounted for a quarter of the country’s electricity supply in 2015, the last year for which data are available, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
Hydropower plants contributed 43 percent of domestic energy generation in 2015, up from just 3 percent in 2010 a trend the government would like to see continue. Projects like the Lower Sesan II will ensure Cambodia is able to develop economically and maintain its energy independence, government officials say.
But opponents of the project argue that these dams have damaging and irreversible consequences. Not only do large hydropower projects destroy local ecosystems and impact the livelihoods of people who rely on fish for their food security and income, but indigenous populations like the Phnong also stand to lose their traditional way of life.
According to Yun Mane, director of the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA), villages like Kabal Romeas are an important part of the country’s indigenous heritage. The decision to prioritise development over cultural preservation will ultimately be a loss for Cambodia, she says.
“The risk is that when the village is flooded they will lose their identity, their cultural beliefs, traditional knowledge, ways of collecting medicine, building houses, interacting with the land and forest,” Mane said. “Indigenous people are part of the country’s heritage, so I hope the government will pay more attention to this.”
For now, the government has offered to relocate Kabal Romeas’s inhabitants to a new village several hours away, and the company leading the project – the Cambodian-Chinese consortium Hydro Power Lower Sesan 2 Co Ltd – offered around $6,000 compensation to families willing to relocate.
Some families have accepted the money or 5 hectares of land offered, but they complain that the land isn’t ideal for farming, and that the new village is too far from the forest and too close to major roadways.
Others, like Srang Choeun, 52, and his wife Keng Bang, 45, are refusing to leave. Choeun says relocation would mean losing everything.
“Now we live in Kabal Romeas collectively, we are united as a community by our common ownership of the land,” Choeun explains, his salt-and-pepper hair glistening in the sun. “But if we agree to relocate then we will accept private property, we will own land like the Khmer people.”
For Choeun, that means giving up slash-and-burn farming practices and access to the area’s natural resources, saying goodbye to the graves of his ancestors, and giving up the unity and collective identity of his people.
Today, much of the village lies empty. The monks from the local pagoda fled in anticipation of the flood, leaving sacred books and statues behind.
As a sign of resistance, the families have taken to spray painting their houses with slogans against the dam.
“This is our native home,” says Nhal, standing in the doorway of his nephew’s house next to the words “I will not leave my homeland”, which are spray painted on the wall in green. “Our ancestors’ spirits are here, we were born here, and we have agreed to die here.”
Appeasing the spirits
Much of the resistance to the dam centres on a belief in spirits connected to the location. Kabal Romeas has two guardian spirits who are especially revered, Ta Uot and Ta Kong. Like their shrines, these spirits are inextricably linked to the land, and the fate of the villagers is connected with that of the spirits, locals say.
Residents regularly pray to them and to their ancestors, asking them to protect them and allow them to stay in Kabal Romeas. Many expressed a belief that their ancestors would curse them, bringing illness and other bad luck, if the community were to leave and allow their graves to be flooded.
Indigenous spirituality includes seasonal rituals for a good harvest. Community members gather to dance and hit a gong; they sacrifice chickens, pigs and bulls to appease the spirits; and offer jugs of wine and cake. These rituals, deeply connected to a sense of place, are what hold the community together, villagers say.
“We borrow the land from the spirits during the rainy season, and give it back during the dry season,” Nhal says. “The ceremonies mark those transitions.”
Kneeling at a large wooden shrine near the community’s rice fields, Nhal, Choeun and Brorch Rithy, 22, chant in the Phnong language as they leave offerings.
Their beliefs mix easily with modern Buddhism. The smell of incense fills the air as the men kneel barefoot before a collection of stones and branches, a simpler version of the ostentatious gold Buddha statues in the village pagoda. They pour wine and grains of rice on the stones and light a candle as they chant, their cries frantic and abrupt from beneath the structure’s roof.
The men say they would never leave the shrine to the flood, even if they were offered $30,000. Their ancestors were told through prophetic dreams where to build the shrine, they say, and it is intimately connected with the fate of the community. Events like marriage and birth require offerings and sacrifices to the shrine and its spirits.
Choeun says his mother and younger brother suffered the consequences of leaving Kabal Romeas. They relocated to the new village and even accepted $150 compensation for their father’s grave, he says.
Nhal says the spirits will be destroyed if the land disappears, an event that would cause the Phnong community to fall apart.
“If the area is flooded then the spirits will be flooded,” he said with conviction. “And this will cause problems for the community.”
The coming flood
This fierce determination to stay has brought the remaining villagers into direct opposition with local officials and the company building the dam.
Sraing Lanh, 39, says her community is being threatened from all sides. The Lower Sesan II Corporation has brought bulldozers into the area, and a Chinese company running a nearby rubber plantation tried to remove the posts marking the boundary of their community forest, she says.
Since 2014, the company and provincial authorities have tried to convince them to leave with little success. But now the dam is almost complete and time is running out.
Once the floodgates close and the rains begin in June, the reservoir will fill. The authorities hope they can convince the remaining villagers to leave in the next month.
“Only 120 households in Kbal Romeas and Srekor village refuse to relocate,” said provincial spokesman Men Kong, referring to a nearby ethnic Lao village where locals also refuse to abandon their homes. “A provincial team is visiting them to discuss a solution.”
It is unclear how the authorities will respond if villagers do not leave in time.
The villagers, meanwhile, say their rights are being violated. The 2001 Land Law recognises the traditional lifestyle and agricultural practices of indigenous communities, and recognises their right to collective land ownership.
The National Policy on Indigenous Peoples also calls for the conservation of spirits that indigenous communities revere in their sacred forests.Still, critics say these policies are ignored and legal loopholes discovered when a lucrative development project is on the table.
According to Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, large development projects more frequently affect indigenous peoples and other minorities because these groups have fewer resources to oppose the projects.
Indigenous populations living upstream from the dam, and outside of its reservoir area, will also be impacted by the changes to fish migration and water quality downriver, Baird added.
And Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia director for International Rivers, says affected populations were excluded from participating in the project’s 2010 environmental impact assessment (EIA).
“Communities and civil society groups have expressed serious concerns about the EIA, which does not properly assess extensive environmental and social impacts,” Harris said. “The EIA study also failed to ensure meaningful participation of affected villagers, information was provided in a language and format that was difficult to understand and the process lacked meaningful opportunities for input.”
Still, Mane at CIYA says the government is missing the point and not factoring in the concerns of indigenous people.
“People complain that indigenous people are against development, that they don’t understand the public benefits,” Mane said.
“But people should also value and respect indigenous people and their way of life . . . When they move, their lives will be more generalised, even their houses will no longer be the traditional houses.”
At the very least, the law says villagers should be consulted before a dam’s construction begins, but many say the project was presented as a fait accompli. They’ve also accused local authorities of trying to intimidate them in an effort to get them to leave.
“When we refused to relocate, they accused us of being part of the opposition [Cambodia National Rescue Party],” Nhal says. “But we’re not affiliated with any political party.”
Choeun says that the authorities warned them not to talk to foreigners or NGOs about their situation.
“The authorities are afraid that people will know more about their rights and will have more knowledge to protest,” he says. “But I like the NGOs, they organise meetings in the village and teach us about our rights.”
However, Kong, the provincial spokesman, insists the villagers who did decide to move were not intimidated and left of their own volition. The provincial government will continue to work with the remaining villagers until they agree to leave, he said.
When Stung Treng’s Deputy Provincial Governor Duong Pov visited the village in March, he told them that the government would not be responsible for any loss of land or property, says Lanh, the villager.
When Kabal Romeas floods, she hopes it will serve as a lesson.
“It will be good if the area is flooded, because the world will see the negative impact of these projects,” she says. “If I die from this then I will die from development.”
But not everyone is willing to relinquish their life or even their farming equipment. Some villagers are moving tractors and other heavy machinery to areas that won’t be affected by the flood. Those who have relocated are dismantling their wooden homes to re-sell the wood.
Meanwhile, in a scenario reminiscent of Noah’s Ark, some villagers are building boats in which to pile their families and farm animals. “We have built two wooden boats with capacity for eight people,” Srang Choern says.
Despite these preparations, the villagers hold onto some small hope their community will be salvaged.
“The authorities said the flood will happen in a month, so we are waiting to see if it really happens,” Choern said. “They said it would flood up to the coconuts.”