A China-financed hydropower project in Cambodia’s northeast has uprooted thousands of local indigenous and ethnic minority people since its completion in 2018, and the developer and the Cambodian government ignored their ethical responsibilities to facilitate its completion, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.
The Lower Sesan 2 dam, one of Asia’s widest, created a flood basin in Stung Treng province, out of the convergence of the Sesan and Srepok Rivers in, both tributaries of Southeast Asia’s mightiest river, the Mekong. In the process, nearly 5,000 people who had lived near the dam site for several generations were relocated.
In “Underwater: Human Rights Impacts of a China Belt and Road Project in Cambodia,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) details how economic, social and cultural rights were all ignored to disastrous effect on the people living near the dam, as well as on the livelihoods of other people both upstream and downstream from it.
“The Lower Sesan 2 dam washed away the livelihoods of Indigenous and ethnic minority communities who previously lived communally and mostly self-sufficiently from fishing, forest-gathering, and agriculture,” said John Sifton, HRW’s Asia advocacy director in a statement.
“Cambodian authorities need to urgently revisit this project’s compensation, resettlement, and livelihood-restoration methods, and ensure that future projects don’t feature similar abuses,” Sifton said.
According to the report, the dam’s developer and Cambodia’s government were aware that they were ignoring the concerns of the affected residents, even pressuring them to accept compensation packages that were lower than they should have been and offering them inadequate housing and services at resettlement zones.
The report also said that people whose livelihoods were affected in other communities received no compensation at all.
The Sesan 2 dam is part of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), Beijing’s worldwide infrastructure plan that it says is aimed at enhancing regional connectivity, but which critics say could saddle poorer nations with long term debt.
According to HRW, “Many of these projects in Asia and elsewhere have faced criticism for lack of transparency, disregard of community concerns, and negative environmental impacts.”
Sesan 2 is owned and operated by the China Hwaneng Group, a large Chinese state-owned company which also built the dam at a cost of U.S. $800 million, paid for through financing from Chinese government banks. A Vietnam state-owned company and Cambodia’s Royal Group own minor stakes.
“Cambodian government and company officials failed to genuinely consult with affected communities and made no attempt to obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of Indigenous peoples, as specified in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” HRW said.
According to the report, between 2011 and 2018 citizens opposed to the project lodged complaints with the company, the government, Prime Minister Hun Sen, and elsewhere, but their concerns were dismissed. As the government refused to discuss alternatives, it threatened and even jailed people who objected to the project.
“There were objections from us all. We told them that we didn’t want to see the development of the dam…,” a villager living near the dam told HRW in the report.
“In the consultation, they determined things for us. They didn’t ask us what we want or need,” the villager said.
At the dam’s completion ceremony in 2018, Hun Sen further dismissed their concerns, saying, “I wish to emphasize that the majority of local villagers here support the dam’s construction. Only a few people have caused trouble for this project. Those troublemakers have been incited by foreigners.”
Many people not displaced by the dam who rely on river fishing for their income are reporting drastically decreased catches as it prevents migration of certain species for spawning.
“Now fish are so scarce,” said a resident who lives nearby.
“We used to get fish for eating and selling, but [now] it has completely decreased. We sometimes don’t even have enough to eat.”
“The expensive fish species have disappeared,” he said. “We are left with cheaper and smaller fish… we end up getting enough fish just for the family to eat,” said another.
People who have relocated also complain that they have seen a drop in agricultural production because their new lands are less fertile.
Additionally, the developer did not establish a system for how disputes or complaints would be resolved, HRW said. None of the parties performed any meaningful benefit and impact assessment either.
Though they claimed the project could produce 1,998 gigawatt hours per yea, or 1/6 of Cambodia’s electricity production, tax revenues suggest that its actual production is closer to 1/12, according to the report.
The developer in May published a sustainability report that acknowledged many of the problems surrounding the Sesan 2 project but largely downplayed them, the HRW report says, even concluding baselessly that it improved the lives of the people it displaced. The sustainability report completely omitted any discussion about the effects on people either upstream or downstream from the flood basin.
“The Chinese government needs to drastically reform Belt and Road infrastructure development financing to prevent abuses in other projects undertaken in countries like Cambodia, where the government has a long track record of violating its citizens’ rights,” Sifton said.
“The Cambodian government needs to reform its laws to require meaningful impact assessments for development projects and put in place more effective measures to prevent abuses.”
In the report, HRW recommended that the developer renegotiation resettlement and compensation packages for all impacted communities with transparency at the forefront of all plans.
It called on the Cambodian government to put pressure on the developer to that effect, as well as to enforce Cambodian laws for development projects and for the rights of minorities and indigenous people, while making efforts to ensure human rights and environmental protections.
For China, it recommended a transparent audit of the project, as well as standardizing regulations for Chinese companies operating outside of China. HRW also called for human rights to be part of the criteria for overseas investment.
HRW also recommended that the international community provide assistance to civil society groups and NGOs, as well as to the affected communities, and assist Cambodia with enforcing its own development laws.
Net Pheaktra, spokesman for Cambodia’s Environment Ministry, said the report was a “destruction of human rights” and “geopolitical interest” aimed at hindering Cambodian development.
"[The report] is an attempt to nurture conflict to serve a real political agenda. The construction of the Sesan 2 dam has brought many positive benefits to the national economy and the people of Cambodia, such as the project’s ability to generate 400 megawatts of electricity,” said Net Pheaktra.
“It is a large hydropower plant that considers renewable energy and encourages the use of such energy,” he said.
The dam has indeed improved the lives of the people it displaced, Stung Treng provincial administration spokesman Men Kung told RFA.
"Obviously, the people have moved to new places where their lives are easier and their livelihood is better,” Men Kung said.
“Separately, a small number of people who did not go to live in the new villages, had asked the Royal Government, as well as provincial, district and commune authorities to live in a location nearby and we allowed them to live decently there,” he said.
The HRW report said that the government had harassed this group of people when they refused to relocate.
“There were no human rights violations there. There was no force to accept compensation. But we encourage people to participate in development, to accept what the Royal Government as well as the provincial impact committee determined,” Men Kung said.
Residents of an affected village became disheartened when the government demolished five of their houses, and floated their remains down the river.
“Provincial and district authorities said they have dismantled the houses and they will hand over building materials to the people,” Foot Khoeun a citizen representative told RFA.
Some of the people who saw their own houses floating away cried, according to Foot Khoeun, and authorities have yet to deliver on their promises.
“They didn’t bring us any wood from the houses. They just floated them away in the water,” he said.
In response, Stung Treng provincial hall spokesman Men Kung told RFA that the demolition of the houses did not result in any affect on the lives of the people, because the houses had already been submerged in the water and people did not live there.
China has stepped in to wield significant influence in Cambodia in recent years as relations between Phnom Penh and Western governments have cooled amid concerns over the country’s human rights situation and political environment following a broad crackdown on the political opposition in 2017.
Chinese investment has meanwhile flowed into Cambodia, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they call unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese businessmen and residents.
Reported and translated by RFA's Khmer Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.