Kbal Romeas, Cambodia

Video : Damming the Bunong

January 10th, 2016

For the indigenous Bunong people of northern Cambodia, a desperate battle against the Sesan II dam will decide if their community has a future.

The Sesan II hydropower dam is potentially Cambodia’s most controversial environmental issue. Located on the Sesan river, one of the Mekong’s major tributaries in northern Cambodia, when completed it will have a devastating impact on the fish populations so essential to the lives of people living downriver. Yet despite the ramifications for wildlife, it is potentially the ancient culture of the ethnic Bunong tribespeople who have inhabited the region for roughly 2000 years who have the most to lose when Sesan II becomes operational in 2017.

An agrarian culture, Bunong rely on the land to subsist - land that will be inundated under 10 metres of water by the dam’s immense reservoir, wiping out both the Bunong’s livelihoods and their ancestral lands.

“Some Cambodians don’t understand our beliefs,” Dam Samnag, a Bunong anti-dam activist told us. “Our ancestors are buried here and if they flood the area we will not be able to come back and visit them. I can’t put a [monetary] value on graves, but if the Prime Minister’s family graves have value, then why don’t ours?”

But Samnang’s opposition to the dam is not shared by everyone in the community, and a relocation package offered by the dam’s builders, Sinohydro, has divided the Bunong into two camps: those who, due to extreme poverty, are willing to leave their land behind in exchange for a new home and cash payment, and those who will fight to the end to protect their lands.

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