Neang’s family has been torn apart by the controversial Lower Sesan 2 Dam, a massive hydroelectric project on the Sesan River, a major tributary of the Mekong, in northeastern Cambodia. Following years of encouragement, pressure and outright intimidation by authorities, her aunties and uncles – even her husband – all belonging to the Phnong indigenous ethnic group, accepted compensation and moved from their village to a government-designated resettlement site some 20km away.

As the US$816 million project neared completion, the school and pagoda at Kbal Romeas village, in Stung Treng province, were closed and the road providing access was no longer maintained. Thirty-five-year-old Neang refused to budge, however, and she, three of her four children (one child having moved away with her estranged spouse) and her mother remained.

More than 200 members of 58 other Phnong families did the same.

That was true at least until last October, when the floodgates of the dam – the largest in Cambodia, and which will have a capacity of 400 megawatts when fully operational later this year – were closed to create a 30,000-hectare reservoir, and their homes were swallowed up by the rising waters.

“Even though it’s a bit difficult, we want to stay here,” says Neang, who, though forced to move to higher ground, remains as close as possible to the now-flooded land – a couple of kilometres away – that her family had lived on for genera­tions. “I don’t want to lose my ancestral identity, which was left behind for me by the soul of my grandmother and my grandfather.”

A joint venture between Cambodia’s The Royal Group, Chinese state-owned Hydrolancang International Energy and Vietnam-based EVN International, the dam – originally proposed in 1999 – has long attracted criticism, with environ­mentalists and rights groups raising concerns about the impact on fish stocks and sediment flow in the Mekong, and on the livelihoods of communities downstream.

Life in the new village is hard because we don’t have access to clean water. I just can’t leave my culture behind. I can’t leave the dead bodies of my father and the other ancestors
Broch Rithy

A 2009 report, released by the NGO Rivers Coalition in Cambodia (three years before the project was formally app­roved by the Cambodian government), stated that more than 38,000 inhabitants of 86 villages “would lose access to the vast majority of their fisheries resources” were the dam to be built, while 78,000 people would lose some access to fish.

“Life in the new village is hard because we don’t have access to clean water,” says Broch Rithy, 23, who also stayed behind, with his wife and newborn child, building a replace­ment house on higher ground like Neang and others. “I just can’t leave my culture behind. I can’t leave the dead bodies of my father and the other ancestors.”

The 570 or so families that did move to the resettlement site now benefit from a new school, as well as a health centre, but their lives are far from idyllic. The compen­sation they received – a new home plus US$6,000 or five hectares of land per family – has proven insufficient because they can no longer grow crops easily, the land available for cultivation being some distance from their new homes.

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“I don’t know how I could earn money there because they have to buy everything, even water and vegetables,” says Broch Rithy, who has several family members at the resettlement site.

Despite the hardships Broch Rithy and others have faced in refusing to vacate their ancestral lands, their persistence may have paid off: in May, the provincial governor pledged to build facilities for the remaining villagers, including a school, a pagoda and a health centre – and all closer to their original homes.

Whether he will come good on his promise remains to be seen.

Additional reporting by Marta Kasztelan