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One evening last December, Pim Ranh walked down to the Sesan River to wash up after harvesting rice.
The water running through the northeast highlands of Cambodia was brown and muddy, but she was hot and needed to cool off. Later that night, Ranh woke up scratching at a rash on her hands and legs. Several months pregnant with her second child, she traveled hours by motorbike to find a medical clinic.
Weeks later, her scabs still covered in purple ointment, Ranh said she was worried her skin condition might hurt her baby. But, like so many others living downstream from the Yali Falls dam who reported rashes, stomach illnesses, and diarrhea since the dam's construction, she feels like there's no alternative to using the river to bathe and drink.
"I don't have a well at home," she said. "Even if the water looks dirty, I have to wash."
Built upstream in Vietnam and Laos, hydropower dams are rising up on the Sesan, Sekong, and Srepok Rivers that flow through Cambodia's northeast provinces, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng. Dams, such as the Yali Falls, have changed the water quality, killed whole species of fish, flooded villages, and wiped out large fields of rice.
These problems are compounded by what's happening in the nearby forests. There, armed guards stand in the thicket, threatening to arrest anyone who enters. The guards hack ax-cuts into the tree trunks, marking off ancestral land the government has sold to the highest bidder—usually a foreign company looking to start a lucrative plantation. The forests have traditionally served as a safety net for the indigenous people, providing a source of income during the "lean months" when the fish aren't spawning and the rice is too young to harvest. But when the government sells off the land, the safety net goes with it.
These dangerous circumstances threaten the very existence of the more than 66,000 people who live in these remote hills. What's worse, the indigenous people here lack any real political power. Many feel marginalized by the mainstream Khmer, who dominate the government and still associate the rural minorities with the genocide of the 1970s, which began as an agrarian revolution.
"The people here, they feel very isolated. They feel like no one from the outside will come to help them," said Kim Sangha, coordinator of the 3 S Rivers Protection Network (3SPN), an Oxfam America partner.
First the rivers
As the scorching sun sets on the Sesan River, the people of Taveng Lou village get to work. Men take out their fishing boats and pull in their nets. Women fill their watering cans and irrigate their gardens and rice paddies. Families wade into the shallows, bathing and collecting water for household use.
Vietnam's Yali Falls dam disrupts this daily routine. Since it became operational in 2001, the Cambodians living downstream have noticed dramatic changes. Unexpected water surges have eroded the shoreline, depositing silt, sand, and rocks in the deep pools where fish live. And the fluctuating water levels have either swept away nets or left them high and dry.
All in all, villagers here say they've seen a 70 percent drop-off in their fish catch.
"Before, you used to be able to put a pot on the fire, walk down to the river, and catch some fish—all before the water boiled," said Em Vuthy, deputy governor of Taveng District. "Now you can spend a whole day and get one fish."
Beyond reducing the number of fish, the dam has altered the way people farm along the Sesan River. Traditionally, the villagers depended on the overflow of the river to water their plants and rice during the wet season. During the dry season, they would plant different crops that could handle the heat and scarcity of water. But now people like Mean Trosh, a mother of seven who grows cabbage, watercress, pumpkins, red chilies, eggplants, and rice along the water, can't plan around the seasons; the dam creates unexpected floods. Trosh says she tries to plant on higher ground, but even those gardens and rice paddies have been destroyed.
"When the water level changes, it rises quickly and goes down quickly," she said. "Last year, I tried to grow rice along the river, but it was damaged by the floods."
According to the villagers and Oxfam partners, the Yali Falls dam was built with no formal assessment of the environmental and social impacts downstream in Cambodia. And right now, more than a dozen dam projects like it are already in the works along the "3 S Rivers"—the Sesan, Srepok, and Sekong—that flow from the central highlands of Vietnam and southern Laos downstream to the northeast provinces of Cambodia.
Last August, a huge flood along the Srepok River inundated at least 15 villages in Stung Treng and Ratanakiri. More than 650 families were affected. Months later, sitting on the wooden floor of their village pagoda under a cascade of prayer flags, Dae Low villagers shouted over each other as they recalled what happened.
Villagers reported hearing a bulletin on the radio that one of the dams under construction would be releasing water for a few days. But by the time the bulletin aired, the Srepok was already rising. Many of the villagers didn't have access to radios. Those who did, lost time warning family and friends. When they returned home, their chickens, pigs, and water buffalo had drowned. Their vegetables had been washed away. More than 1,300 rice fields were destroyed—an entire year's harvest.
"We are very worried about the future," said the village chief, Prom Phally. "We don't know how to prepare for these floods."
Then the forests
The people of Cambodia's northeast highlands depend primarily on fishing and farming to make a living. But they have always looked to their forests as sacred places. They supplement their income by collecting local plants there and gather herbs for traditional medicines. During the dry season, when the green grass turns to yellow straw, they let their livestock wander into the woods for food and water.
At 67, Seth Gnal makes the three-mile trek to the woods near the Srepok River every three days. Together with family members, he collects tree resin to repair and maintain his fishing boats. He uses what's left to fuel the torches that illuminate his home in Kbal Romeas village.
Gnal feels threatened by his new neighbors: foreign-funded, Cambodian-fronted land concessionaires. These are the companies that make use of Cambodia's weak land titling laws to buy up what indigenous people consider their land. Even before these companies clear the land to plant single crops like teak—a hardwood requiring at least a decade to mature before it can be logged—they pay armed guards to prevent the local people from coming through.
"Before, the indigenous people in the village always went to the forests to gather vines, resin, rattan, and honey to sell," said Kim Deung, another villager. "Now, if we go into the forest, the guards will catch and arrest us. We're afraid to go in."
According to locals, the plantation owners have promised to give them work. But it's usually people from the larger towns who get hired. And even then, the pay is poor: less than $2 a day.
At the same time, the concessions often encroach on land the indigenous people use to grow rice. This situation forces them to remain on the few parcels of land they already occupy. For farmers and fishers who typically move every 15 years to allow the soil to regenerate, it threatens the farmers' ability to feed their families. Many people end up producing so little that they must sell the rice they grow and borrow the rice they eat.
"The Forest Administration tells us we can't clear some of the forest for more rice fields, yet the concessionaires are permitted to clear the forest and sell the trees," Gnal said.
To make matters worse, the land concession sales slowly strip the local people of their culture. As Estela Estoria, a program officer in Oxfam America's East Asia office explained, the 15-year interval of farming is so engrained in the highlanders' way of life that they use the Khmer word for these farms—chamka—to measure the ages of their friends and family members. A 15-year-old is one chamka. A 30-year-old, two.
"The indigenous people don't know why this is happening to them," Estoria said. Animists and Buddhists, "they feel like God or their ancestors are angry with them."
Now, slow but historic progress
The work of Oxfam's partners begins here, teaching the local people about the outside forces impinging on their lifestyle and working with them to advocate on their own behalf.
Local o rganizations like 3SPN, the Culture-Environment Preservation Association, and the NGO Forum on Cambodia encourage the highlanders to use their indigenous knowledge to keep written records about the changes in their environment. The records describe which species of fish are dying off, how quickly the water is rising or falling, and which plants have been eliminated by the clearing of the trees. Then the partners train members of the communities to form local networks. Through these networks, the network leaders, called "focal people," teach the villagers to consolidate their research, write petitions to land concession companies, and even speak out at stakeholder meetings of dam developers and governments.
As a result of this work, officials of Electricity of Vietnam, the agency behind the hydropower dams in that country, met to discuss the environmental and social impacts on the Srepok River basin this past January. It was the first time in more than a decade that the Cambodian indigenous people affected by these projects could speak directly with the Vietnamese government, the Cambodian government, and the donors funding the construction.
The indigenous people used the opportunity to ask for compensation for their lost livelihoods, fishing boats, and equipment. They asked for a share of the benefits of the dam, such as electricity transmission lines for their community. And they asked that no new dams be constructed without their consultation.
According to news accounts, the Vietnamese government agreed to "implement dam projects with bilateral agreements, follow international treaties, look to having the citizens of Vietnam and Cambodia gain income," and reduce environmental impact. The Cambodian government said it would work on reducing the impact of the dams on local people and the environment.
Having accomplished this much already, Oxfam's Cambodian partners hope to increase the participation of indigenous people in dam projects and land concession disbursements. It's a slow path to success, but in a country working to overcome so much, the progress is historic.
"It was amazing to realize that the ministries were all raising the same issues as the local authorities and villagers. Everyone was just waiting for a legitimate platform to speak out," said Sangha of 3SPN. "Now we need to follow up with the national governments to make sure they come through on their promises. That's the biggest challenge."
With additional reporting by Brett Eloff.