Cambodia’s Areng indigenous community fight for land and identity

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“We, Areng people, don’t want the dam project in our homeland because we are living here with nature, we are here to protect natural resources for our young generations in the future,” said Pok Luy, an elderly woman in Chumnoab commune, Thma Bang district, Koh Kong province.

Pok Luy is among thousands of indigenous Chong (or Khmer Daeum) people who live in the Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountains of Koh Kong province in Cambodia. They have been fighting against the proposed 108 MW Cheay Areng hydropower dam project since 2013. If built, the dam will displace thousands of Chong and other communities, and destroy the local ecosystems that the Chong depend on for their livelihoods.

In February 2017, the Royal Government of Cambodia put the Cheay Areng dam project on hold after many years of local opposition to the dam. Meanwhile, the Chong people are also fighting for their identity as indigenous communities to be recognized by the government so that they can strengthen their indigenous rights to use the land and natural resources.

Areng villagers in a prayer gathering held in 2015 as part of their opposition to the Areng hydropower dam project at the Prolay temple, Prolay commune, Thma Bang district, Koh Kong province. (Photo by Phin Savey.)

Biological Surveys in the Central Cardamom Mountains (done by the Conservation International Cambodia Program and Forestry Administration of Phnom Penh), shows that the proposed Cheay Areng dam poses a threat to the habitats of over 57 animal species including 55 species of reptiles, 29 species of amphibians, and 43 species of fish in the area. This includes the Siamese crocodile which is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with only six known breeding sites, and the upper Areng River being one of them. If the Areng River is dammed, this population of the crocodile will be seriously reduced or wiped out. The dam also threatens the Asian Arowana which is listed as endangered by IUCN due to loss of habitat. The largest known population of Asian Arowana in Cambodia occurs in the upper Areng Valley.[1], [2]

The dam will displace more than 500 families of the Indigenous Chong community who have been living in this area for at least the last 600 years, and heavily depend on the valley’s natural resources for their livelihood.

The forest ecosystem means everything to the communities. It is a food source, a place to find medicine, and forms the core of their spiritual beliefs. The Areng villagers also believe in the well-being of the animals, that the animals are connected to their ancestral spirits, and nature will bring the community good fortune and happiness.

For the last five years, the Indigenous Chong people in Pralay, Chumnoab, and Thmor Donpov commune have been petitioning the government to recognize their identity, cultures, and their ways of life. They gathered in Phnom Penh to submit petitions to relevant ministries twice in 2017, and again earlier in 2018. Official recognition of their indigenous culture and identity will help solidify national and international protection for their lands and culture.

According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)’s Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), the Cambodian government and Chinese-owned dam company Sinohydro must seek the prior consent of indigenous communities to be affected by development projects. However, neither the government nor the company has made any efforts to consult with, and gain the consent of, the indigenous Chong.

With an electricity-generation capacity of 108 megawatts, Cheay Areang dam project will cost about US$ 413 million dollars to build. “The Cheay Areng hydropower dam will force the Chong people out of their dwellings to a resettlement area. “The dam will destroy our livelihood and our traditional rotational farming practices. This forest area is also a protected area according to a sub-decree of the government in 2001,” said Ven Vorn, Areng community leader.

Chong people in Areng Valley have asserted that that they don’t want the hydropower dam in the valley and they don’t want to relocate from their homes. Already once during the Khmer Rouge Regime (between 1975 and 1979), Chong villagers were forced to move away from their ancestral lands and then returned to Areng Valley again only around 1994.

“We won’t move again, we are ready to die here. The government doesn’t consult with local communities. We did not participate in their decisions at all,” said Pok Luy, an elderly woman whose family has been living in Chumnap village, Chumnap commune for many generations.

Areng people were organizing a spiritual ceremony for Nak Ta Luang (Luang is a name of the King who was die in Areng forest) asking him to damn they Cheay Areng hydropower dam project, in 2015. It was to make a statement and to send the message to the government that locals do not want the dam. (Photo by Phin Savey.)

Asserting their ancestral rights

Back in May 2014, the Areng community forced the Chinese dam building company’s staff to move out from the Areng Valley, and then blockaded the road for six months to stop any construction machinery and supplies from entering the valley. During several months of maintaining roadblocks, the Areng community submitted a petition to the Koh Kong provincial governor, relevant ministries in Phnom Penh City, the National Assembly, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, to stop the dam project.

Later in September 2015, the Third Committee on Human Rights and Natural Resources of the National Assembly visited the Areng community and discussed community concerns, and received a petition signed by the fingerprints of the Chong people who demanded that the government halt the Cheay Areng dam. The Third Committee issued a letter to the government and in response in 2016, the Prime Minister suspended the dam project until 2020. However, the local people do not trust the government because according to Cambodia’s national energy master plan, Areng Valley is potential site for dam construction.

Besides the Areng communities, environment activists along with many Cambodian grassroots groups, are fighting to oppose the dam, and demanding that the indigenous Chong culture in the three communes get official recognition of the Cambodian Ministry of Rural Development.[3]

The Areng community members continue to keep asserting their rights to their lands and cultural identity. They have formed a women’s group and a savings group to further strengthen their local movement. Many local activists and environmental groups have conducted workshops and conferences, organized events during the Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the International Day of Forests, and the International Human Rights Day to raise awareness about the Chong indigenous people’s rights. In their fight to protect their beloved Areng Valley and their cultural identity, the Chong indigenous people in Koh Kong province are determined not to give up anytime soon.


[1] International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). “The IUCN red list of threatened species.” Accessed 30 September 2015.
[2] The Rain Forest Information Center. Accessed 15 October 2018.
[3] The Phnom Penh Post. (4 April 2018). “Ethnic Areng Valley minority group petitions for recognition.” Accessed 20 August 2018.


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