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Made for China

China is investing a lot in the development of it’s surrounding countries and Cambodia is one of them. For reigning prime mister Hun Sen, China’s “no strings attached” aid in form of funding hydropower projects and roads,  has helped war-torn Cambodia build a modern infrastructure, and diplomatic support from Beijing helps him fend off human rights criticism from the West. At the same time, however, many Cambodians are increasingly wondering if China’s footprint in their country isn’t getting too big. 

Back in 2012 the government owned Chinese Development Bank funded a $255 million controversial hydropower project in the pristine Cardamom Mountains area. This 120-megawatt Stung Atay hydropower plant was opened in 2014 and flooded a large area of one of the last primary rainforests in Cambodia. In this photo series from 2017 it comes to documenting the fast changing people and environment around this development-orientated project.

One of the last upright trees in the flooded Stung Atay reservoir which was before 2014 all rainforest. When the Stung Atay dam was built, an estimated of 20,000 cubic yards of rosewood were harvested, netting approximately $220 million in profit for Vietnamese and Chinese timber companies. After this, the water came and a lot of families living in the then deep forrest were getting displaced to other places because of the needed reservoir.

  • Indiginous ‘Chong’ woman prepare a rice and fish meal for the men’s village council of Oh Soam. This center region of the Cardamom Mountain consist of a very small commune including 4 villages, with around 380 families with most of them indigenous ‘Chong’ people. Since 2014, the woman in this picture were forced to live next to the Stung Atay dam reservoir, where still few fish is present.

  • To construct the many hydro electrical projects in the area, many Cambodian roads, bridges and other infrastructure is also being build by the Chinese government and companies. This ‘Chinese bridge’ in Oh Soam is crossing the Stung Atay resevoir. As a remark of the work, there are many Chinese written signs.

  • New water brings also opportunities to the people of Oh Soam. Since the Chong people are traditional hunters, with the use of boats it’s possible to explore new hunting grounds deeper in the forrest. For these two boys the fresh water is also used as a new place to cool down in the summer heat.

  • But new infrastructure brings also a lot of destruction and problems. New roads bring new people and with the newly constructed farms, the natural habitat of the endangered tiger, elephant and many other species is at risk. Around the human presence, burned trees are still leaving smoke after a fast and small logging operation by villagers. Trees are especially harvested in the northern part of the Cardamom protected forest. On average a tree is worth as much as a cigarette. However, this is enough for many poor residents to make quick money. Large foreign timber companies frequently claim a few acres of land from the protected forest for logging operations.

  • This is the spot where the old road disappears into the water. The shops and houses that once stood here, no longer exist. A young couple wash their clothes and themselves in the reservoir. Money to buy a washing machine, they have not. And if they did so, they could not use it because most of the generated electricity goes straight to the big cities and neighboring Thailand. Many families in the region use a small diesel generator for power instead.

  • With about 10 bridges and more than 2,000 kilometers of country-wide road built by Chinese development aid, the infrastructure has significantly improved access to markets and main hubs. The new road towards the community brings a lot of new people deeper in the jungle which make the villages grow. Construction sites are found everywhere and some traditional inhabitants fear that even the last tree in the area will be put down some day.

  • Engineer Leam Sum poses for a picture at the Stung Atay Hydropower Dam. “The Dam brings in a lot of work and income for the villagers, I think people should be proud of what we have achieved here.”

  • The collapsed first-attempt bridge of the Chinese build road near the 338-MW Russei Chrum Krom hydropower plant.The US$500 million plant, located in western part of Koh Kong province, is Cambodia’s largest hydroelectric project and part of the government’s plan to increase power availability. The project was developed by the Chinese state-owned China Huadian Corp. under a 35-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) agreement with the Cambodian government.

  • The Stung Atay Hydropower Dam II is the small sister of upper Stung Atay I. The Chinese sign on the hill says “Pragmatic dedication to innovation and forge ahead”.

  • A view on the Areng valley, a huge area covered with primary rainforest. The Cambodian government is arranging plans to build one of the biggest Chinese funded Hydropower dams in the middle of the protected rainforest. Since heavy protests in 2014, the plan is set on a temporary hold and ever since the future for the area and it’s people remains uncertain. If built, the Stung Cheay Areng dam would flood at least 26,000 acres or 40 square miles (some estimates say 77 square miles), displacing more than 1500 people who have no desire to leave their ancestral homes.

  • A Cambodian People’s Party billboard is seen in the indigenous village of Oh Soam. Reigning Prime Minister Hun Sen may be re-elected next year during the 2018 elections. He has served as Prime Minister since 1985, making him the longest serving head of government of Cambodia, and one of the longest serving leaders in the world. Hun Sen’s ties with China has not been appreciated by Cambodia’s general public because China’s strategic interests focus on the government, political parties and political elites and neglect to focus on benefits for the average Cambodian. The outcome of the next elections will play a big role in the future of the Cardamom Mountains area and it’s people.

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