“Development is for other people”

Farmers and fishermen don't seem to want dams, electricity or even compensation, reflects Zhang Hong on visiting Cambodia's Ratanakiri province. Rather, they want to preserve their way of life.

In the Cambodian province of Ratanakiri – bordering Vietnam to the east and Laos to the north – local people are fighting to protect their rivers from hydroelectric dams, and their lifestyles from disruption. In early August, I spent two days in Ratanakiri at the invitation of 3SPN, a local NGO focused on the “three Ss”: Srepok, Sesan and Sekong, all tributaries of the mighty Mekong.

Founded by Cambodians, 3SPN aims to bring together communities in this north-eastern region of Cambodia to campaign for the rivers and the livelihoods that depend on them. Joining me on the trip were journalists from Hong Kong, Vietnam and Korea – all home to companies that have built or are planning to build hydroelectric dams here. 3SPN wanted to show these reporters the impact dam construction has on local lives.

On our first day in Ratanakiri, we travelled to the village of Thmey, outside the provincial capital of Banlung. Lying on the Srepok River, Thmey has neither electricity nor running water. The village is home to 899 people, divided between 178 households. It has four television sets and a collection of radios – some of the richer families have small generators to provide electricity.

Through a translator, village head Sela Ratha told us that people here mostly make a living through fishing and rice farming. Any surplus fish can be sold and the income used to buy new fishing equipment or other goods.

Downstream Cambodia is often affected by dams built beyond its borders. Even if upstream nations carry out environmental and social impact assessments on their dams, they rarely consider what will happen over the border, much less provide compensation for people living there. Several years ago, Vietnam built a dam on the Srepok, which the fishing communities of Thmey say has made their lives more difficult.

The villagers complain that the dam causes unpredictable changes in water level – meaning their nets are never in the right place. They set the nets up, then come back the next day to find that they’re hanging above the water or are completely submerged, or even that they have been swept away. Via the village head, they have asked the Vietnamese to keep them informed about their dam operations, but by the time they get the phone call, the flood peak has already passed.

The dams also block the path of migrating fish. In the past, a 100-metre net could catch 20 kilograms of fish in an evening. Now, it’s only two or three kilograms. Water quality has also declined, as vegetation submerged by the dam waters rots. Reduced flows have also increased sedimentation, and the Srepok is turning into another “Yellow River” (which contains more sediment than any other river in the world).

The villagers know there’s not much that can be done about the dams Vietnam has already built – they are more worried about one due to be constructed right next door. At the end of last year, a team of Chinese workers suddenly appeared and started drilling bore holes in the rice fields by the river. Their translator told the locals that they were carrying out a geological survey as part of proposals to build a dam. The villagers say they were never informed about the project, let alone consulted. Even the village authorities didn’t know about it.  

With help from local NGOs, the villagers found out that, in 2008, the Cambodian government signed a memorandum of understanding with Guangxi Guiguan Electric Power on the construction of two hydropower dams on the Srepok River, with generating capacity initially planned at 300 megawatts and 100 megawatts respectively.

“We don’t want dams,” a villager told me. On January 11 this year, they put this message in writing to the village and district governments – but have received no response.

Is it really true they don’t want dams under any conditions? Although I knew the villagers had strong objections to dam development, I thought that they would be asking for reasonable compensation and minimisation of the environmental and social impacts, for talks and hearings – I didn’t expect their attitude to be so absolute.

The first reason the villagers give is this: they don’t want electricity, nor do they want hydroelectric dams. What use is electricity to this primitive fishing and farming village? Even if they wanted it, neither the government nor the company plans to give it to them – there’s no distribution network. The power from the dam will go to industry in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, or be exported to Vietnam. The locals will pay with their homes, but get nothing in return.

What if the government gives them adequate compensation? The villagers answer that they might get a one-off payment, but that won’t help their children and grandchildren. The dam will flood fields and fishing will be even harder. With no livelihoods, what use will the money be? The villagers also feel certain the government and the Chinese company will not be generous: they didn’t tell the locals about the agreement with the electricity company or the feasibility study, so it’s clear that they don’t see any need to consider them.

The villagers also report that, this year, the government leased a nearby parcel of land to a Cambodian company to use as a rubber plantation. That land included some of their rice fields, but no compensation was paid. Events like this are common in Cambodia, and the villagers are worried they will keep happening.

I asked people here if they would be prepared to go and work for that company – it’s a job, after all. The response was a forceful “No!” The translator summed it up: “They would rather work for themselves.”

As in many parts of the world, villagers are facing modern realities of land acquisitions by private companies and have no choice but to sell their labour on the open market.

I started to understand why, to the people of Thmey, development isn’t a priority – for them, development is something for other people; they don’t get anything out of it.

The next day, we went to Padal Thom, near the border with Vietnam. This is a Jarai village, with a population of 552, living in 103 households. The people here are even poorer, and even more dependent on fishing than in Thmey. The village used to get everything they needed from the Sesan River, but Vietnam has built five dams upstream and there are no longer enough fish – when there’s not enough to eat, the villagers have to take a one hour motorbike ride to the border with Vietnam to buy more. When Typhoon Ketsana struck in 2009, the Sesan River experienced a rare flood, which carried away the village’s livestock and poultry. The villagers believe the size of the flood is related to the dams upstream.

The villagers here are equally firm: no dams, even if there is compensation.

These people live in a “pre-capitalist” era, and are accustomed to traditional farming and simple living. They think their descendants can maintain the same lifestyle and see nothing wrong with it.

The Jarai are animists, and that’s another reason they don’t want to move – this is the place where generations have made sacrifices to the gods and their ancestors, and they need to stay within its protection.  

Some might call this “ignorant”, even “backward”. But who are we to say the lifestyles others choose aren’t as good as ours, or that we must “help” by giving them “more advanced” ways of working and living? Surely that’s the same attitude adopted by Europeans arriving in Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century.

I tried to look at it from the point of view of the government and investors: without industry, Cambodia will always be at the end of the global value chain – and, with less than ideal energy resources, hydropower is the only way out. There’s no alternative but to sacrifice the interests of a few for the sake of the many.

But, in this case, do the benefits for the many really outweigh the costs for the few – including the environmental costs and future risks that haven’t been calculated? I’m not sure, but I know that for these villagers who know nothing but farming and fishing, relocation might mean hunger and disease. Have the many thought how to repay the few? Have the Chinese companies, who think all they need to do is reach a deal with the Cambodian government, heard their pleas?

A Cambodian working for an international research institution, told me that there are good dams and bad dams. The World Commission on Dams has a set of detailed guidelines: if you follow these closely, you can maximise the benefits and reduce the negative impact. But those guidelines aren’t compulsory, and many nations, especially developing nations, don’t use them in their own projects. Even in the European Union and United States, where they are followed, new issues often arise after construction, and dams remain controversial.

So is the villagers’ stance – no dams at all – too extreme?

“It’s because they don’t have very good information,” said the NGO worker. “Some environmentalists just tell them about the disadvantages, but not about the advantages – and the disadvantages aren’t always there.”

“So . . .” he paused. “You need the best researchers mediating between the government and the environmentalists. We won’t tell the government not to build dams – on the contrary, we’ll tell them when you build a dam, you need to do this and this.”

Zhang Hong is European correspondent at Caixin.

A longer version of this article first appeared on the author’s Caixin blog

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