Can A Few Monks Save the Cardamom Forest?
By Luke DugglebyMay 16, 2013
Cambodia, strapped for cash and desperate for energy, has turned to clearing its prehistoric forests for hydro-electricity dams. And China is only too eager to help.
Guided by Buddhist monks, the 200-metre-long orange cloth snakes its way through the Cambodian village of Ta Tai Leu and into the forest until it reaches a clearing. There, emerging from the forest with community members, students and farmers in tow, the religious procession is met by a scene of devastation: logging has left only the largest trees in this old-growth rainforest, their enormous buttresses too much for the loggers’ machinery, their canopies towering over the smouldering wreckage. The monks pause momentarily, then continue towards the remaining goliaths, to bestow their blessing.
It’s a tree ordination, in which spiritualism meets activism, with the hope of protecting the trees left standing through either divine intervention or media attention. The Khmers take spirits seriously. And it seems little else stands guard over this place in the country’s southwest, which is nonetheless called the Central Cardamom Protected Forest.
Deep in the Cardamom, the Areng valley is covered with such ancient trees, along with natural wild grasses, and small communities of Khmer people who still speak an ancient form of Khmer language. This vast forest has been little explored, largely protected from development because of its remoteness and the retreating Khmer Rouge who left thousands of landmines in their wake; people were too scared to enter, or simply didn't have access to the region. The Areng is also one of the last known natural habitats in which the Siamese crocodile is found, though it had been believed extinct in the wild until it was rediscovered here in recent years.
Cambodia’s forests were once described by the World Bank as the country’s “most developmentally important resource”, but according to the international group Global Witness, by 2009 these rich forests had been largely degraded by unrestricted logging, the valuable timber sold off by the political elite for quick, private profits.
According to the group’s report Country For Sale, “Patterns of corruption and patronage found in the forest sector, and documented by Global Witness over 13 years, are now being duplicated”, in other Cambodian industries.
In the valley adjacent to that in which the tree “ordination” was held, a dam project known as Stung Cheay Areng is in the planning phase. It’s part of a wider hydroelectric program in the valley and across Cambodia, in which Chinese companies are driving development. China has some US$4.5 billion in Cambodian energy contracts and investments, according to The Heritage Foundation’s investment tracker.
It’s true that Cambodia is a country in serious need of electrification. During the 1970s, the country’s civil war all but wiped out its electricity infrastructure. When the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975, it destroyed virtually all electricity-related facilities as part of its efforts to reduce the country to a completely non-threatening agrarian society.
When Cambodia eased into a state of peace in the late 1990s, the government tried to rehabilitate the electricity system, but internal fighting, lack of funds, and many other issues affecting a country that had been reduced to rubble just a few decades before, made this a difficult task.
Even today there is no national grid, and the vast majority of the population — and less than 10 per cent of rural households — has no regular access to electricity. The demand is there from domestic, business and industrial sectors, and is increasing every year, yet the government has insufficient capacity to meet such needs. Even Phnom Penh experiences regular blackouts. Foreign investment is seen as vital to developing this much-needed infrastructure.
“Cambodia is seriously short of electricity and recent power cuts show that the available supplies cannot meet demand. And the government has prioritised developing hydropower as one way to remedy this problem,” says British researcher Mark Grimsditch.
“As one of the world’s least developed countries it has limited resources and technical capacity to [manage such projects]. China has proved to be a willing partner in supporting this burgeoning industry,” Grimsditch wrote in a report about China’s hydropower investments in the Mekong region.
“Chinese hydropower companies are eager to invest abroad, and have strong backing from the Chinese government,” according to Grimsditch’s 2012 report, produced for the World Resources Institute.
“Until recently, Cambodia was a relatively clean slate in terms of hydropower, and so presented an excellent opportunity … for Chinese companies looking to develop overseas projects. This has fit well with Cambodia’s desire to develop the sector, and no doubt the strong political relationship between the two countries has facilitated the rapid expansion of the sector.”
Though China was once a supporter of the Khmer Rouge, the past 15 years have seen a strengthening of government relations between the two countries. China has poured money into Cambodia through aid and investment, waived national debts, and secured access to key sea ports. In 2006, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen described China as Cambodia’s “most trustworthy friend”.
And the Chinese government’s focus on large-scale development projects, such as hydropower dams, is very inviting to a Cambodian government in a rush. It’s difficult to obtain precise funding figures on international deals in Cambodia. Many approved projects are never realised, for various reasons — for example, the mere approval of big projects is seen to boost the prestige of Cambodia for potential investors — but in the past 10 years China’s actual investment has increased substantially, especially in the energy sector.
China, with its commitment to developing renewable-energy projects, is now the world’s largest developer of hydro-electricity-generating dams, having several years ago surpassed The World Bank in this role. With its domestic market saturated (so to speak), overseas projects keep China’s big state-owned companies in play, and developing their damming technology, Grimsditch told The Global Mail. Worldwide, China’s wealthy state enterprises and banks have around 300 dam projects either in the planning stage or currently being constructed, in at least 70 countries. In Cambodia, 11 such projects are at varying stages of development, including the dam that threatens the Areng valley.
THE ARENG VALLEY DAM project’s feasibility was being assessed by a team of engineers sent by China Guodian in November 2012. After three months of living in the valley, the engineers returned to China, but as yet their recommendations are unknown to the public. The same applies to the status of the deal, though some reports have speculated it could go ahead within months.
Within and around the boundaries of the Cardamom Forest, three other dam projects have already started construction or been completed. The rivers being dammed are: The Atay river (hence Atay Dam); The Ta Tai river (Ta Tai Dam); and the Roussey Chrum River.
But it is the planned damming of the Areng river that has galvanised environmentalists, students, rice farmers and now monks. The advocacy campaign highlights the relocation of indigenous people, and the impact that flooding some 20,000 hectares would have on wild fish and other rare and threatened species.
The Areng valley is remarkable for several reasons, not least its Siamese crocodiles. This newly rediscovered reptile is still classified as Critically Endangered — the highest risk category assigned by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List for wild species.
Fauna and Flora International, a British non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved in conservation, and which has been working to protect the last remote populations of the crocodiles for several years, estimates that fewer than 250 are left in the wild. Habitat destruction and hunting have eradicated the creature from 99 per cent of its historical range, which once covered much of Southeast Asia.
But even that is now at risk. If the Chinese-funded Stung Cheay Areng dam project goes ahead, this vital breeding ground could be submerged forever. Other species would also suffer catastrophic consequences: gibbons, black bears, Asian elephants and a host of other mammals thrive in this area of national park.
The Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF) complex covers 4,013 square kilometres. The largest unbroken tract of woodland in Southeast Asia, and by far the most pristine, it is made up of a series of adjoining national parks, each dedicated at different times, with the aim of preserving the whole area.
The Stung Cheay Areng dam is by far the most controversial yet proposed in Cambodia. It would not only submerge one of the most bio-diverse valleys in the country, but some 1,000 people who have lived in the area for centuries would be forced to relocate. Their six villages run in a line along the valley floor, where these people have for generations coexisted in a sustainable balance with the surrounding environment.
Cambodia’s ever more confident government authorities have evicted tens of thousands of people from their lands in the past decade to make way for development projects. In return for meagre compensation, they are frequently forced to leave their extensive ancestral lands which have long afforded them a subsistence living, and relocate to two- to three-hectare plots, which are often in the forest, on an elephant corridor where their activities are likely to conflict with those of the elephants, and on steep land with no area for rice plantations. In short, they are forced to abandon a sustainable existence for likely poverty, according the array of campaigners against the project.
One old lady in a village in the Areng valley, who didn’t want to be named, told The Global Mail, “I heard from other villagers that we will be leaving and that’s what everyone thinks will happen. We will only have the option of selling our buffalo and will be forced to leave our trees and our land behind.”
The sacrifices of the people are compounded by the fact that the dam makes almost no economic sense. According to a report issued by International Rivers, an NGO which has fought since 1985 to protect rivers around the world from destructive dam projects, the first Chinese company involved in the dam was China Southern Power Grid, which signed in 2006, but later withdrew from, a Memorandum of Understanding to explore the prospects for a dam there. In November 2010, China Guodian Corporation revived the spectre of flooding the Areng Valley, when it signed a new Memorandum of Understanding with the Cambodian Government.
The withdrawal of China Southern Power Grid was not surprising, considering that this dam, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, is expected to produce only 108 megawatts of power at best, according to the calculations of various NGOs; and that it will have to flood over 20,000-hectares of land to make a reservoir large enough to produce even that quantity of electricity. Over half of this reservoir will be located in the CCPF and will totally submerge the Areng Valley, making it the largest single encroachment to date into the protected Cardamom Forest.
According to Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director of International Rivers, “The Stung Cheay Areng dam’s environmental and social costs are likely to outweigh the project’s US$327 million price tag. While it’s a large investment, the Chinese often benefit from the payment of warranties granted to them by the Cambodian government.” Such warranties may include promises to buy back the power at an agreed price, and even provide financial bailouts in certain circumstances. Trandem’s report adds that, “Cambodia’s poor governance also serves as an advantage for Chinese companies, as the true environmental and social costs associated with these projects falls on the hands of the Cambodian government to remedy.”
China Guodian Corporation, with profits of almost a billion US dollars in 2011, is China’s second-largest power company. As with any Chinese company of that size, it is administered by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council, (SASAC), on behalf of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.
Not frightened of controversy, China Guodian also announced in November 2010 that it would undertake a feasibility study into a much larger dam project at the town of Sambor in Kratie Province, in Northeast Cambodia. This dam would totally stem the flow of the Mekong River itself. The consequences of damming such a major river would be catastrophic, in terms of fish migration and downstream fish stocks alone.
“This project was proposed as part of a US$6.4 billion deal for 16 infrastructure projects that was inked when Wu Bangguo, chairman of the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress travelled to Cambodia in November 2010. At that time, Wu was reported as saying that Chinese financial institutions would likely provide financial support,” says Ame Trandem.
ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ-DAVIDSON couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The trees just went on and on. The forest seemed never to end. Every now and again he’d stop his motorbike, ask a villager where the road led, and continue. It was his first trip into the CCPF and his first visit to the Areng Valley. It was love at first sight.
“You have mountains surrounding you on both sides. You have no telephone coverage and no electricity. Since the first time I went there I felt like I was stepping back in time … Khmer is spoken as it was hundreds of years ago and you hear people speaking this ancient form of Khmer everywhere. It’s not only the magical beauty of the valley itself, nature wise, it’s the people as well,” Gonzalez-Davidson tells The Global Mail.
Born in Spain to a Spanish father and a British mother, Gonzalez-Davidson arrived in Cambodia on holiday in 2002, and never left. Learning the Khmer language to a fluency that very few foreigners ever achieve, he has made almost 30 trips to the Areng Valley and surrounding forests, and formed an empathetic relationship with the local people. Getting to the valley is a feat in itself, with the only access after the town of Tmol Bang being a mud track not wide enough for a car, and a surface so bad that it can take an untrained outsider three hours to cover 16km on a motorbike.
But the road didn’t deter him and any time he was able to take off from his job as an English teacher at a Phnom Penh university, he would visit the villages and spend days, often weeks, living there, talking to the locals and trying to understand the area. He admits that some of the people in the valley are now among his best friends, so he has an interest in their wellbeing.
When rumours of the dam — plans for which were presumed to have been shelved when China Southern Power Grid withdrew from the project — began to resurface in 2010, Gonzalez-Davidson tried to make sense of the prospect that the valley could be lost forever. “In any other country in the world this dam would simply not go ahead; the valley would be declared a world-heritage site. Why destroy an area that size for just 100 megawatts of power? Spain is doing solar panels, taking up two to three hectares of land and you end up with 50 megawatts of power, and this could flood up to 20,000 hectares of protected forest! It doesn’t make sense.”
One thing Gonzalez-Davidson has learned during his time in rural Cambodia is the power and strength of Buddhism and the respect accorded to monks of the country’s dominant religion. In a system built on corruption at every level — from the police force to politicians — Buddhist monks are trusted by the local people.
It was this trust that he believed could be built on to create a Buddhist movement led by monks, which could help save the valley and surrounding forests.
In early 2012, Cambodia’s most famous environmental activist Chut Wutty was murdered. For years Wutty had fought to expose the illegal operations — such as animal poaching and the logging of rosewood and other rare timbers — taking place in the Cardamom. He regularly took journalists in to observe and report on such activities. It was on one trip, to expose the illegal logging of rosewood, that he was shot dead by a military police officer protecting the operation.
Wutty strongly believed in the power of the monks to rally and inspire people, and often worked in collaboration with them. After his death, Gonzalez-Davidson contacted a close associate of Wutty to ask if he knew any monks who would be interested in leading a tree-blessing movement into the Areng Valley.
At 42 years of age, monk Brahm Dhammasat has seen a lot of change in the Cardamom. His home is a village called Aural, a two-day walk north of Areng, in a valley beside Cambodia’s highest mountain, Phnom Aural. His valley is much easier to access than the Areng Valley, and despite being part of a wildlife sanctuary has also been devastated — in its case by logging and sugar-cane plantations.
“Ever since I was a child I have seen how the world has been changing around me and the destruction of the environment has increased more and more. I want that to change and see the world become more sustainable, where people are dependant on nature and nature is dependant on people. If that doesn’t happen the cycle of life will be broken and there will be no more species left on our planet,” Dhammasat says.
After hours of discussion on the telephone, Gonzalez-Davidson managed to persuade Dhammasat to come to the village of Ta Tai Leu, outside the valley but inside the CCPF, to lead the first tree ordination in this part of the Cardamom. This was a test run before the group ventured into the Areng valley itself — an area in which officials are much more sensitive to activism.
Monk-led environmental activism has been very successful in another forest, in Northwest Cambodia. There, in 2002, a monk called Bun Saluth prevented the destruction of his local forest by teaching people the importance of the natural resources their livelihoods depended on. The result was the legal protection of 18,261 hectares of evergreen forest now called the Monks Community Forest. For this achievement, the monk was honoured with the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize, which recognises local initiatives to advance sustainable development solutions.
Susan M. Darlington, Professor of Anthropology and Asian studies at Hampshire College in America (and who wrote The Ordination of A Tree, about the Thai Buddhist environmental movement and its activist monks), explains, “If the monks and organisers work closely with the community involved, including them in the planning and implementation of the blessing and concurrent projects for protecting the surrounding forest, the rite would help cement a commitment to conservation. People need to feel they own the rite and the project, and understand how it benefits them in the long run.
“In Thailand, the robes on trees are beginning to be more effective because the whole country now knows about the rite; the symbolism of a tree wrapped in a monk’s robes has slowly entered the Thai conscience enough that hopefully loggers hesitate when they know a forest has been consecrated and is taken care of by local people,” she says.
Gonzalez-Davidson, who is registering an NGO called Mother Nature, to help continue the movement he has helped to initiate in Cambodia, remains realistic. He knows that the real fight must come from the local people themselves and hopes that the monks can be the force to inspire such change.