Monks, Young And Old, March In Protest Of Cambodian Hydroelectric Project

CREDIT: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

The latest challenge to a proposed hydroelectric project in a western Cambodian rainforest does not come from environmental groups, politicians, or local residents. It comes from monks.

Buddhist monks from Phnom Penh walked 15 miles through the jungle last week in protest of the proposed 108 megawatt Stung Cheăy Areng dam, which would reportedly result in the flooding of almost 2,000 hectares of rainforests — some of which would be forest land sacred to Buddhists. The flooding would cause more than 1,500 people to relocate, The Cambodia Daily reported.

The group of 40 monks ranged from young to old, from fit to frail. According to Al Jazeera, a number of elderly monks became overwhelmed by the trek, prompting a rescue mission from a nearby village. “As is the norm for Buddhist monks, they had not eaten since noon,” Al Jazeera’s report said. “Most had brought only a little water.”

If built, the Areng dam would be located on the edge of the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, a “biodiversity hotspot” that is home to some of Cambodia’s largest mammal species. Half of Cambodia’s reptiles, birds and amphibians live in the Cardamom forest, which also houses the only known wild-breeding population of critically endangered Siamese crocodiles, according to the Global Conservation Fund.

Environmentalist group Rainforest Rescue has said that the flooding caused by the dam will threaten the habitat of more than 277 animal species of which 31 are globally threatened. Other energy companies had studied the potential for a project there but had turned it down, the group said, adding that the costs for the dam would be very high in view of the plant’s relatively low capacity.

The proposed plant’s projected output of 108 megawatts, the group said, “would not meet Cambodia’s rising energy needs.” But Cambodia needs more sources of renewable energy, according to a recent report from the United Nations, which called the country’s current electric system unsustainable. Cambodia’s primary energy source, the UN said, is fuel-wood and imported petroleum products.

The UN report recommended the country develop a sustainable fuel wood supply and promote the use of alternative energy sources in order to combat the negative effects of climate change. However, the report also cautioned against the development of hydropower in the country, saying it might have negative impacts on agricultural lands and the productivity of fish habitats. If Cambodia were to use hydropower, the report said, it should invest in large-scale thermal and hydro power stations which “could be considered for energy export projects which would also contribute to reducing costs for domestic uses.”

When the monks arrived at the proposed dam site in Areng Valley, they blessed the surrounding forest by draping the surrounding trees in saffron sashes, the Phnom Penh Post reported. Though monks have traditionally been discouraged from involving themselves in politics, Bun Buntenh — the monk who organized the protest march — told the Post that “things don’t have to be this way.”

“I think life is created from the environment itself,” Buntenh told Al Jazeera. “If I lose part of the environment, I lose part of my life.”

The project is being proposed by China Guodian Corporation, one of the five largest power producers in the People’s Republic of China.

Pech Siyun, provincial director of Cambodia’s energy department, told Cambodia Daily in June that there is not yet a set date for construction of the dam. “The process of discussion over capital investment and some technical issues has not yet been completed,” he reportedly said.