Areng Valley, Cambodia – Buddhist monks from Phnom Penh have marched 25 kilometres through dense jungle into western Cambodia in protest against the environmental destruction of one of the country’s few remaining pristine rainforests.
Rampant development has affected forests and waterways across Southeast Asia, and the monks have decided to push back.
“I think life is created from the environment itself. If I lose part of the environment, I lose part of my life,” said monk But Buntenh, who organised the event.
The monks marched towards Pra Lay, a small village deep in the remote Areng Valley. Together with a dozen or so youth volunteers, the monks said they hope to encourage residents of the valley to stand up to the Cambodian government and foreign corporations planning to build a hydroelectric dam on the Areng River.
The Stung Cheay Areng dam project, proposed by the China Guodian Corporation, will create a reservoir that would flood about 20,000 hectares of rainforest and displace the valley’s estimated 1,500 residents.
But before the 40 monks began their protest, they first needed to reach Pra Lay – only accessible by a 25km journey through inhospitable territory.
The monks were of varying ages and fitness levels, and the lead walkers were forced to stop periodically to allow the rest to catch up. As is the norm for Buddhist monks, they had not eaten since noon. Most had brought only a little water.
Several elderly monks, overwhelmed by the rigorous trek, needed to be rescued by a fleet of motorcycles dispatched from the village. Some did not arrive until 4am.
Despite exhaustion, the monks remained in high spirits, playing Khmer pop songs from smartphones that doubled as flashlights.
Despite their late arrival, the monks awoke with the sun the following morning and unfurled their main instrument of protest – an 80-metre-long saffron cloth that they wrapped around large trees as part of a Buddhist blessing. By blessing the trees, the monks said they hoped the residents of the Areng Valley would see their natural environment as holy, and therefore resist development offers made by foreign corporations.
“Most people in Cambodia don’t understand about the importance of trees. Trees bring rain. With no trees, I am afraid that Cambodia will become like the Sahara,” said 30-year-old monk Koem Bunloerum.
If constructed, the dam would devastate one of the most biologically diverse areas of rainforest left in Asia, the monks said.
According to environmental watchdog International Rivers, the flooding created by the dam’s reservoir would destroy the habitat of more than 30 endangered species, including tigers, elephants, and the critically endangered Siamese crocodile.
A document released by the activist group Save Areng Valley also described how the influx of workers required for such a large project would likely bring about an increase in illegal hunting, fishing, and logging.
China Guodian is not the first foreign company to propose damming the Areng River. Local media reported earlier this month that a rival energy giant, China Southern Power Grid, had already explored a project but cancelled plans because of what it viewed as unacceptable human and environmental impacts.
China Guodian did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Spanish-born environmental advocate Alejandro Gonzales-Davidson has visited the Areng Valley for years, and dedicated himself to protecting it from environmental degradation through his non-profit organisation Mother Nature.
“Even though, allegedly, they wouldn’t make any money from this dam, they would build a relationship with the government and the relevant ministries, so that in the future they could build more dams. That’s where the profit would come from,” Gonzales-Davidson told Al Jazeera.
Monk Ngim Saosam Khan, 33, said he was optimistic about making a difference.
“In Cambodia, monks have power and can stand up to the government if something is wrong,” he said. “So the government and many companies are not happy with our work because we are disturbing their [quest for] money.”