Are development projects only for the rich?

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
Photo courtesy: Channy
Channy Yeam belongs to the minority indigenous Pu Nong tribe, who inhabit the Kbal Romeas village in Stung Treng Province’s Sesan District of Cambodia. She spoke with CNS (Citizen News Service) on the disastrous impact of the development projects, like hydro-electric dams, on the lives of local inhabitants and indigenous communities.

Channy is also among the key participants at the forthcoming 3rd Asia Pacific Feminist Forum (APFF 2017), to be held in Chiang Mai, Thailand (7-9 September 2017).

Channy’s village is one of several villages that will be inundated by the Lower Sesan II hydroelectric dam (whose construction on the Se San River began in 2014 and is likely to start producing electricity by end of September, 2017). According to an Environmental Impact Assessment, the construction of the dam will inundate numerous villages, forcing the involuntary relocation of thousands of villagers. Besides, it will destroy 30,000 hectares of adjoining forest land, as well as 24% of the total agricultural land in Sesan District. The dam will also block access to migratory fish stocks on which the villagers depend for food and income. Apart from being home to wildlife, the surrounding forests are an important source of income for the local indigenous families, where they hunt wild animals and gather fruit, honey, flowers, fungus and other valuable natural products.

In Channy’s village, while 423 people (over 200 of them are women), have already moved to the new relocation area, 58 families comprising 227 people (108 of them are women) have chosen not to leave their ancestral homes, despite all odds, and continue to oppose the government’s forceful eviction. Even those who have relocated are struggling to meet their basic requirements, contrary to government’s promise of a better life. The new land given to them by the government is not fertile and the meagre rice crop it yields is not enough to sustain them and pay for their basic needs like electricity, food and even water which they now have to buy, said Channy.

Photo courtesy: Channy
She cited the many woes which the affected villagers, especially women, are facing. “Women need water on a daily basis not only for drinking but also for other domestic purposes, to raise their animals and for cultivation. The dam has made water inaccessible to the villagers. We have lost the fish in the river, and we have lost our forests and its produce. The government has destroyed the bridge so that people cannot not have any access to the local market. Access to healthcare facilities, schools and all public services have also been cut off for this village to force eviction. The military and police who have been brought to guard the reservoir area are not only restricting the free movement of villagers, but also threatening people with possible arrest and imprisonment, if they do not leave the village. While the villagers have found another market in nearby Ratanakiri province for market access and also for getting some minimal healthcare, they are worried about their children, who are not able to go to school and have been without education since the last two years now. This is going to have long term repercussions on their mental and physical health”, lamented Channy.

Current 'development model' makes rich richer, poor poorer

The current development model is making the poor poorer and the rich are getting richer. Channy feels that the people who are affected must be central to development, and not the people who have power of military or police. According to her a good development model should prioritise the local people and their needs. The rehabilitation and resettlement policy too should be made in consultation with the affected communities. Relocation areas must provide land, food security, livelihood, and economic stability to the people who are forced to move out of their ancestral lands, even though the loss of their traditional and cultural knowledge cannot be compensated for. People should not be intimidated or forcibly relocated.

Channy is in the forefront of the local people’s struggle against such projects which deprive people of their livelihood, and their way of life. Women have always been on the frontline of organizing protests and unitedly building up resistance against such lopsided development - more so because they are the ones who are most severely impacted by it.

Note: My sincere thanks to Sotheara without whose translation help this audio interview would not have been possible. Sotheara belongs to an ethnic minority and works with Thailand Association based in Ratanakiri province of Cambodia.

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
30 August 2017
(Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor at CNS (Citizen News Service) and the above article is based upon her interview series of key women leaders in Asia Pacific region who have played a key role in striving for development justice. Follow her on Twitter @Shobha1Shukla)