An ancient earthwork in Kompong Cham province has been bulldozed and partially destroyed to make way for a village to house rubber plantation workers, according to local officials and archaeologists.
The Samrong earthwork in Memot district, an area dotted with the remains of dozens of prehistoric villages, was flattened last week by bulldozers from the Memot Rubber Plantation, a formerly state-owned rubber company that was privatized in 2008.
There are more than 30 circular earthworks in Memot dating from between 1,000 and 500 BC, remnants of Iron Age rice farming villages that were surrounded by raised earthen walls and moats.
The Samrong earthwork, which is around 170 meters in diameter, was discovered by aerial photography in 1997; since then a number of ancient artifacts have been unearthed there, including stone axes, polishing stones and ceramics.
Last week’s bulldozing destroyed the earthen wall and moat surrounding the Samrong site, but scholars are hopeful that most of the artifacts in the village interior are untouched, according to an archaeologist with knowledge of the situation. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions.
He said that although the Memot Rubber Plantation was clearing the land, it was doing so on behalf of a government development project to build a village for rubber company workers. The company had agreed to stop construction pending discussions with the Ministry of Agriculture, which are scheduled for this week, he added.
“Before, this site belonged to the Memot Rubber Plantation, but now they have given it to the Ministry of Agriculture, the government, they call it the NDC, for development,” he said.
“This is very important for cultural heritage,” he added. “It’s a very important site, a very old civilization that existed only in Cambodia.”
Deputy Memot district governor Ros Sokhan confirmed yesterday that the site was being bulldozed by the Memot Rubber Plantation in order to build what he said was a social land concession for more than 500 rubber workers and their families. But he said company and district officials were unaware that the area contained a valuable archaeological site.
“We never knew that area in Samrong village had a circular earthwork in my district jurisdiction,” he said.
“If that area has a circular earthwork, the conservation groups as well as heritage officials should contact the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to get intervention to have a land swap,” Mr Sokhan added.
Chek Sa Aun, who served as Memot district governor until his retirement two months ago, said yesterday afternoon that he had just returned from a visit to the bulldozed earthwork site.
“So far, the rubber plantation company just cut down the rubber trees [there], while the hole and moat have not yet been filled with soil,” he explained. “The government decided to smooth a 1,000-hectare area for a social land concession for poor people, especially the families of rubber workers.”
Architectural historian Darryl Collins said the Memot earthworks were some of the most important remnants of early civilization in Cambodia.
He said the area’s long history of rubber cultivation might actually have helped preserve the earthworks, with tree cover ensuring that the landscape remained relatively unaltered.
“What’s happening now, apparently, is that they have decided on changing the landscape…they’ve cut down all the trees and are leveling the ground, so the earth movers have actually leveled the mound that is the circular earthwork and presumably destroyed the site,” he said.
“There are other ancient sites,” he added, “but there are not many circular earthworks sites. These are unique in Cambodia.”
The privatization of Memot Rubber Plantation is part of the Asian Development Bank-funded agriculture sector development program, an ADB spokeswoman said yesterday.
According to a resettlement plan posted on the ADB website, construction was set to start in June 2010 to build villages for rubber plantation workers displaced by the privatization. The government body responsible for the resettlement is the Agriculture Ministry’s National Divestment Committee, or NDC.
Putu Kamayana, ADB country director, said he was unaware of the Memot resettlement plan and could not say if it was the same project that led to the bulldozing.
“Obviously if it was one of our ongoing projects, we would be very concerned,” he added.
Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun could not be reached yesterday and Chan Tong Yves, a secretary of state at the ministry, said he was busy in a meeting and could not talk.
Memot Rubber Plantation could not be reached for comment.