Local Opposition to Dawei SEZ Reservoir Persists

By Yen Saning 19 January 2016

KALONEHTAR VILLAGE, Dawei District  — “I would not exchange my betel nut plantation for a dam,” Kalonehtar villager Han Htay said one sunny day earlier this month, speaking at his home in southeastern Burma’s Tenasserim Division.

In testament to the crop’s importance to the man, a layer of fresh betel nuts were spread under the tropical sun in front of his house to dry.

“Our livelihood depends on the forests and mountains. We will be dead if we can’t earn a living,” the 70-year-old explained as he smoked a cigarette, saying his family earns 15-20 million kyats, (US$11,540-$15,380) annually from a total of 30 acres of areca palms, from which betel nuts are derived. In addition, the family sells cardamom, a spice that draws its ingredients from seeds of plants native to the area.

With news that long-stalled plans for the Dawei special economic zone (SEZ) may finally be moving forward in earnest, villagers here are again on alert and ready to mobilize in opposition to a dam project that they first mounted a campaign against five years ago.

Last month, Japan bought into the SEZ, assuming a one-third stake, along with the governments of Thailand and Burma, in a development that its boosters hope will see the plans materialize after years of uncertainty.

‘Doubly Marked’

The lives of Kalonehtar villagers were described in a report as “doubly marked” for disruption by the plans of Italian-Thai Development, which is seeking to dam the area’s natural mountain stream and has already charted the course of a new road to run near the village. The report, “Voices from the Ground,” was published in 2014 by the Dawei Development Association, which said that initially, the whole village would have been submerged by a reservoir created by the dam, with the residents of Kalonehtar told to relocate.

Once media reports about the proposal began circulating, the abbot of the village monastery, Panya Wunsa, began looking into impacts of the dam on Kalonehtar and came to the conclusion that the plan would need to be altered.

The abbot went to SEZ implementer Italian-Thai Development, proposing that the company move its planned reservoir three miles upstream, but the company did not budge, saying the alternative location would not allow for a reservoir of the holding capacity that it envisioned.

Italian-Thai acknowledged that the village would need to be relocated but promised, by way of consolation, better living standards for the affected villagers.

When SEZ implementers came to negotiate with villagers in November 2012, however, they were greeted by placards reading “No Dam, No Relocation.”

With 182 households, Kalonehtar is the largest of four villages of the Talaingyar village-tract in Yephyu Township, Dawei District.

For livelihoods, most of its approximately 1,000 villagers depend on small-scale mining in the Talaingyar stream and grow seasonal produce such as betel nut, cardamom, and a tuber known as elephant foot yam.

Resilient Opposition

Su Paing Htwe is a member of the Dhamma Thabin Youth Association, which has existed in the village for decades and was an early opponent of the dam.

“We have been campaigning a lot against the dam, since 2010. Even if the dam is constructed in another place, at any scale, we have no plan to accept it,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Asked why, Su Paing Htwe expressed doubt that anything other than the complete scrapping of the plan would still have adverse effects on the village.

“If they must proceed anyway, we are prepared. They need our consent and must conduct environmental and social impact assessments. We must question how they will account for the loss of orchards, and livelihoods that depend on the forest and mountain,” Su Paing Htwe said.

Unwilling to accept the dam, villagers are preparing an alternative plan for development in the form of community eco-tourism, taking advantage of the area’s natural and cultural endowments.

“We will present our region’s traditions and cultures. We have natural hot springs and waterfalls. We will showcase our tradition livelihood,” Su Paing Htwe said.

Villagers plan to charge 30,000 kyats for a visit per day, including meals, a tour guide and transportation. They are also aiming to provide homestays for foreigners, though the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism currently prohibits this.

Kalonehtar residents’ long-standing and vocal opposition won a small concession in Italian-Thai’s July 2013 decision to move the dam site about 440 yards upstream.

Su Paing Htwe is not appeased.

“Although it will not be in Kalonehtar’s area, whichever place they dam, since this is flowing along the Talaingyar stream, people will be impacted anyway. That is hard for us to accept,” he said.

For now, villagers are following the lead of the 51-year-old abbot Panya Wunsa, who helped spearhead a successful campaign that coaxed a company to improve its environmental practices at a lead mining project along the Talaingyar stream.

Kalonehtar is also close to the road linking the Dawei SEZ to Kanchanaburi province in Thailand. There are plans to expand the current two-lane road into a four-lane highway—subject to the consent of villagers.

“Italian-Thai came to me the other day [to discuss extending the road]. I told them only Thai investors like you come but no [government] authorities come with you. If the project is invested 50/50 by both Myanmar and Thailand, how can we accept what you alone have said to locals, without the presence of [government] authorities?”

A meeting to present the results of an environmental and social impact assessment of the road’s  widening, when the consent of villagers will be sought, is scheduled for Jan. 28. The abbot is not promising an easy sell.

“Even with the two-lane road, our river and stream are silted up. I will ask them what they can do about it. If they can [offer assurances], they can continue. If they can’t, we might stop them.”

Asked what he thinks of the prospect of the Dawei SEZ’s moving forward, Panya Wunsa said that for him, the dam and reservoir were a red line.

“Regardless of whether it is large-scale or small-scale, we can’t accept it if it could destroy our community,” he said, adding that the SEZ’s implementers needed to do a better job with community consultations.

There is recognition, however, that local opposition may not be enough to prevent the dam project from going forward: If the dam cannot be prevented and negotiations are to be made, the abbot said villagers would need to seek guarantees on who would be held responsible for any adverse impacts, including the potential for disasters such as landslides, resulting from the damming of the stream.