With Activist in Limbo, Students Hope Tourists Can Stop Dam

A group of university students from Phnom Penh opposed to a proposed hydropower dam in Koh Kong province entered the project’s construction site on Sunday for a 10-day study aiming to highlight the area’s alternative potential for ecotourism.

The trip comes amid the government’s decision not to renew the visa of the most high-profile of the dam’s opponents, Spanish national Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a move that would force the outspoken activist out of the country.

Moung Sony, a first-year undergraduate majoring in international relations, said he and seven like-minded students had raised $1,900 from the Community Legal Education Center, a local NGO, and Cambodians living abroad to carry out a study of the Areng Valley.

If given the green light, the Stung Chhay Areng dam would cause the flooding of nearly 10,000 hectares, including the habitat of some 30 globally threatened animal species and the ancestral homeland of a community of ethnic Chong families.

“We want to push for the development of ecotourism,” Mr. Sony said. “The Areng is a beautiful place with wild animals and trees. The dam would bring in money, but the scale of destruction will be very big. What we worry about most are the people who live there.”

Kaing Heng, a fourth-year tourism management student on the trip, said the group would use GPS devices to map out ideal trekking routes, waterfalls and other potential points of interest for future tourists.

The students said they were familiar with the area, having joined in past protests against the dam with Mother Nature, the NGO Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson co-founded to help the Chong families in the valley get the project canceled.

In September, Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson and about 10 Mother Nature activists were briefly detained by police in Koh Kong after blocking the main road into the valley when a group of government officials arrived by car hoping to meet with the Chong families.

On Sunday, the Interior Ministry said the stunt had cost Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson a new visa. Sok Phal, who heads the ministry’s immigration department, said his current visa, which expires Friday, would not be renewed.

“We [will] finish his visa because we have a complaint by the Koh Kong authorities” over the roadblock, he said. “This guy [doesn’t] obey the authorities. If you close the road and authorities cannot go to do work; [what else] can we do?”

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson, who speaks fluent Khmer, said he was convinced that the government was refusing to renew his visa because the NGO had succeeded in stalling the dam project.

“I consider myself a Cambodian, so I have no intention whatsoever of leaving,” he said. “They will have no choice but to forcibly remove me, which in my mind will help inform even more Cambodians about the true nature of this government. Cambodia is, in my view, anything but a democracy, which my illegal deportation would highlight further.”

Asked if Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson had broken any law, General Phal declined to comment. He said he was merely following orders and referred the question to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, who could not be reached.

The government says the dam would only be given the go-ahead after a thorough review of social and environmental impact assessments that are currently underway.

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