“I am arrested and ready to be deported now – Alex.”
So read the text sent at 5 pm on February 23 by Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of the Cambodian conservation group Mother Nature, to key supporters and members of the media. He sent it from the Department of Immigration office where he was being held at Phnom Penh International Airport. An hour later, his last message from Cambodian soil captured the mission for which he has become known: “Message to youth and Cambodian nature lovers, stay strong, the battle is yours to be won. For Nature. Our Life.”
As his flight took off at 9:30 pm, his supporters continued to protest outside the airport under a frenzied media glare.
“The reason they are trying to deport me is that they regard me as a fish bone in their throat, due to the activism in the Areng Valley,” Gonzalez-Davidson, who goes by Alex, told me in an interview in Koh Kong city the week before his deportation.
Ten thousand hectares of the Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountain forests of southwest Cambodia are slated to be flooded by a proposed hydroelectric dam across the Cheay Areng River. The forests in the Cardamom Mountains are some of the most extensive left in Cambodia, which has lost 84 percent of its primary forests to logging and agriculture since 1990. The Areng Valley is home to at least 31 endangered animal species, according to Mother Nature’s website. The Areng River is one of the most important breeding sites for the critically endangered Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis), which is thought to number no more than 1,000 mature individuals worldwide, according to the IUCN. It is also home to the endangered Asian arowana or dragon fish (Scleropages formosus).
Some 2,000 people also live in the valley, many of them from the indigenous Chong tribe. Most of the valley’s inhabitants oppose the dam, which would flood their farmland and force 1,600 of them to move to a relocation site that they fear would be inferior to their land. The only specific relocation site that has been proposed so far was eventually rejected on conservation grounds because it would have disrupted a critical migration route for the dwindling population of endangered Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) that still maintain a foothold in the Cardamom Mountains. Valley residents also opposed it because it had no water access and its steep, forested slopes were unsuitable for farming.
The dam would supply 108 megawatts of power, presumably to Koh Kong province where it would be located. A report by the Japan International Cooperation Agency for the Cambodian government concludes that the $300 million price tag will result in a high per-unit cost of electricity compared with other dams.
Around 1:30 pm on the day of Gonzalez-Davidson’s deportation, police officers had detained him and another anti-dam activist with Mother Nature named San Mala at a cafe in central Phnom Penh. The arrest came three days after Gonzalez-Davidson’s visa expired. The Ministry of the Interior had asked him to leave voluntarily and re-apply for entry to the country, but sensing that his visa would not be renewed, Gonzalez-Davidson, a citizen of Spain, decided to overstay it.
For more than a week Gonzalez-Davidson’s deportation dominated the headlines, dragging senior political figures into the discussion. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party sided with Gonzalez-Davidson, demanding of the government and even the King that he be allowed to stay. But it was not to be.
“The government’s decision to deny Mr Gonzalez-Davidson a visa renewal is a perfect example of the government’s sustained attempt to quash grassroots advocacy, silence dissent and ensure an environment where the government can operate with immunity from independent criticism,” Naly Pilorge, director of the prominent Phnom Penh-based rights group Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, said in a statement. Signed by representatives of 31 civil society groups, the statement was presented to the government at the parliament building in Phnom Penh on February 17.
Prime Minister Hun Sen responded to Gonzalez-Davidson’s supporters in a quasi-aggressive tone following his deportation, the Phnom Penh Post reported on February 24: “If you want to make an autonomous zone [in the Areng Valley], please come, and we will put BM21 [multiple rocket launcher vehicles] in that area, but I don’t accuse them seriously like that.”
However, under pressure, the following day the prime minister dialed back his threats and actually appeared to delay the project. “I would like to say do not talk about the Areng Valley anymore,” he said, according to the Phnom Penh Post. “Study it more clearly; and I think even if we study it clearly until 2018, we cannot develop it. And in my opinion, I want to leave it for the next generation.”
Within the week, 180 activists had travelled to the Areng Valley in solidarity with the local people and out of anger over Gonzalez-Davidson’s deportation. The government was also at work in the area, sending a parliamentary delegation to convene a meeting with local residents extolling the virtues of the dam. Local residents said they found the heavy presence of military guards surrounding the officials intimidating. Mother Nature observers had their camera phones snatched and the contents deleted by guards for attempting to record the proceedings.
Ven Vorn, a prominent anti-dam activist from the Areng Valley, was also summoned to court on charges of supplying timber without a permit to Mother Nature to build an eco-centre for visitors. The charge was viewed by observers as another attempt to silence opposition to the project.
How did Gonzalez-Davidson, who had been living and working in Cambodia for 12 years, attain such notoriety? Of mixed Anglo-Spanish parentage, he was born in Catalonia, but speaks English with a Geordie accent from years living with his mother as a teen near Newcastle, England. Now in his early thirties, he made Cambodia his home in 2003 and worked as a translator with the International Red Cross and a number of private companies to make ends meet. However it was the majestic rainforests of the country that drew him and he undertook many intrepid journeys, often alone on his bicycle, to remote forest regions.
His fluent mastery of the Khmer language enabled him to engage intimately with Cambodian communities struggling against exploitation under the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has brutally suppressed all opposition in the country during his thirty-year rule. “Alex is a foreigner but he can speak Khmer, so many people respect him,” Mother Nature activist Somnang Sim told me at the group’s base in Koh Kong city shortly after Gonzalez-Davidson’s deportation.
I got to know Gonzalez-Davidson in 2012 while I was making a documentary about the Cardamom Mountains called Defenders of the Spirit Forest. Then he was careful not to stand in front of the camera, preferring to maintain a low profile because he was mindful of the consequences of speaking out against the regime he calls a “criminal cartel.”
Concerned to find pristine stands of primary forest felled by banana plantation owners, Gonzalez-Davidson had teamed up with monks and youth activists to organise a tree-blessing ceremony in the Cardamom Mountain community of Tatai Leur. From that point onward he became bolder and more outspoken in his activism, as he grew frustrated with what he viewed as the ineffective approach of big conservation NGOs in the Areng Valley. He maintains that, working in formal partnerships with the regime, groups such as Fauna and Flora International and Conservation International have said little publicly against destructive projects like the Cheay Areng dam for fear of losing their permission to operate in the country.
Styling his own brand of activism based on non-violent direct action and the creative use of social-media, Gonzalez-Davidson co-founded Mother Nature in October 2013 with trusted Cambodian activists. His short quirky videos poking fun at “the monkeys in power” have become a hit with Cambodians, each one quickly going viral from Mother Nature’s Facebook page. Gonzalez-Davidson became the charismatic public face of the campaign. In a country where television is tightly controlled by the state, it is the internet where much social debate happens.
He especially appeals to a youth population yearning for the political freedoms they read about on their smart phones daily. By confronting the regime, Gonzalez-Davidson has become a symbol of their hopes and aspirations. Now he has a following of activists increasingly prepared to challenge decisions made by politicians widely believed to be corrupt, and to stand up to laws enforced by judges many consider politically compromised.
Prime minister Hun Sen narrowly retained power in July 2013 elections, but protests accompanied opposition claims that the election results were rigged. Hun Sen responded in characteristic fashion with bloody crackdowns, and at least two people were killed at a series of protests over several months that attracted tens of thousands of people. In January 2014, Hun Sen banned all protest.
During this period Gonzalez-Davidson and his allies continued to mount protests in the capital, most of which were swamped with police. One featuring students wearing animal costumes on bicycles attracted more police than protesters and didn’t even manage to begin cycling. Still, the symbolism that it presented set social media alight.
In March 2014 Gonzalez-Davidson and a band of Cambodian followers set up a protest camp in the middle of the thickest jungle in Cambodia. Their mission was to block Chinese dam builders from entering the remote Areng Valley. Despite the regime’s blanket ban on protests, the camp became a clarion call to a growing youth movement. Students made the journey from the capital Phnom Penh to support a motley mixture of around 50 monks, indigenous Chong locals, and ex-loggers. I visited the jungle camp in the rainy season of June 2014 to find this committed bunch sleeping in hammocks as the incessant rains flooded tents and turned the area into a quagmire.
Five times, Gonzalez-Davidson’s protesters surrounded Chinese surveyors and dam builders in their vehicles and sent them packing. Then last September the police arrived with military support from Koh Kong province, broke up the camp, and arrested Gonzalez-Davidson and eleven others when they again blocked the road. They were released from Koh Kong city police station only after agreeing to sign onerous commitments to cease their activities.
The threat of deportation soon followed. An article in the Phnom Penh Post on December 12, 2014 quoted Chheang Vun, a government minister, threatening the leader of Mother Nature, whom he did not name, with deportation. “If I find that he did anything against what he pledged to the Ministry of Interior, I will request that the Immigration Department at the ministry arrest him and send him back to his home country,” Vun told the newspaper.
Deportation of foreign activists is highly unusual in Cambodia. The last such case was in 2005, when the London-based international transparency advocacy group Global Witness provoked the government with a critical report and the government denied visas to its staff.
Although he was to be deported to his native Spain, Gonzalez-Davidson gave his minders the slip at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. He has since continued campaigning from Thailand, in close communication with Cambodian colleagues.
Although the government’s official line is that feasibility studies have yet to be done, the evidence is mounting that the Cheay Areng dam project may have stalled. “We have been really effective at exposing this white elephant project. It is just an excuse for further corruption from logging and mining,” Gonzalez-Davidson told me.
The proposed hydroelectric-dam project is led by the Chinese dam-building giant Sinohydro Resources, with help from its powerful Cambodian partner Pheapimex. Led by ruling-party senator Lao Meng Khin, Pheapimex is infamous for high-profile land conflicts around Cambodia. A letter to the Phnom Penh Post in March from state power company Electricité du Cambodge (EDC) stated, “The EDC has stopped considering this dam one hundred percent since the speech by the Prime Minister saying the project has paused.”
However, Gonzales-Davidson and other anti-dam activists remain suspicious, not least because Sinohydro Resources recently registered a wholly owned Cambodian subsidiary called Cambodia Cheay Areng Electricity Company Ltd. specifically for this hydro project.
Grace Mang, China Program Director at the Beijing office of the NGO International Rivers, has yet to get word from Sinohydro about its reaction to the government’s postponement of the dam. She speculates that it will have an impact, saying: “Three years is a long time, I don’t know if Sinohydro will be prepared to wait it out. I don’t think they are going to spend much more money on [the Cheay Areng dam project]. Chinese companies need signed contracts to meet quotas so they wouldn’t be wasting their money on a project that won’t have an outcome until 2018.”
For his part, Gonzalez-Davidson said he remains hopeful that diplomatic efforts will soon enable him to return to Cambodia. Meanwhile he is touring the U.S., telling Cambodian communities about Mother Nature’s work and managing the group’s activities from afar.
In recent months Mother Nature has opened new campaigns challenging sand dredging in the rivers of Koh Kong province and supporting local people fighting tourism developments and the expansion of plantations in Botum Sakor National Park in Koh Kong province.
In Koh Kong city a few days before his fateful journey to Phnom Penh, where he faced deportation, Gonzalez-Davidson told me, “No matter what happens to me, no matter where I am, we just need to make sure that people are further inspired to get involved in the campaign and indeed the protection of the natural resources of Cambodia that are being decimated beyond belief.”