aural district, Kompong Speu province – The Cambodian flag that hangs from a pole overlooking the gully was put up a month ago during an elaborate ceremony attended by Chinese and Khmer prospectors, villagers say.
Residents in nearby Samroang village say a pig was roasted and prayers were offered before the men set to work carving stone with picks and chisels in an effort to determine whether this clearing in the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary could sustain a profitable mining operation.
Currently, the operation, which is illegal under Cambodia’s protected-areas legislation, is deserted.
The Ministry of Environment aims to keep it that way, at least for now.
Established in 1993 under royal decree from then-King Norodom Sihanouk, the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary lies in the western area of Kompong Speu but until 1995 it traded hands several times as the military and Khmer Rouge fought for control.
Since then, the government and NGOs have established several projects in the park intended to protect the natural resources, wildlife and villages enclosed within its borders.
But over the past year, a number of developments—including mining exploration activities and proposed construction of a resort and golf course by New Cosmos Development Co Ltd—have raised concern from environmental groups at the park. Now it appears the Ministry of Environment is taking action.
At the exploration site, about
2 km from Samroang, several pits have been dug into the ground near the smooth stones that mark where a stream runs in the rainy season.
Phon Sok Eng scrapes at one of the holes with a walking stick and pulls out several stones flecked with gold-colored dust.
The motorbike taxi driver said this is where Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Cambodian prospectors have dug at least 10 times, taking stones they say will be tested.
The clearing was covered with bamboo trees until recently, and now noodle wrappers and empty water bottles litter the area.
On Nov 22, Industry, Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem and Future Environment Ltd company Director Veng Heang signed a Memorandum of Understanding giving the company the go-ahead to look for mineral deposits over a 70-km area in the sanctuary.
Though any exploration would break the law, Environment Minister Mok Mareth said last month he would not condemn the project until he saw what the potential economic benefits were.
“If it is really important to the economy, we have to support the project,” he said at the time.
Under Article 4 of Cambodia’s 1994 Declaration of Protected Areas, the exploitation of minerals and use of explosives in a protected area is prohibited.
A few weeks later, the Aural district office received a copy of a letter dated Dec 20 from Mok Mareth to his counterpart at the Ministry of Industry.
“The Ministry of Environment asks the Ministry of Industry to cancel the Memorandum of Understanding relating to the study of the Aural mine and please intervene to stop all activities,” Mok Mareth wrote.
“The area where the Ministry of Industry has allowed Future Environments to study is an area under the Ministry of Environment,” he continued, adding that the agreement breaks several laws.
But in an interview at his office Tuesday, Mok Mareth said he was not opposed to the project and only wanted an environmental and social impact assessment submitted by the company.
“It depends on the economic value of the protected area,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re only considering the economic value alone. What we consider also is environmental aspects, and we balance the two.”
Mok Mareth said the government is looking at a new protected-areas law that would provide four different types of conservation zones in a radiating circle: Core protected zones, which are untouchable, conservation zones, sustainable development zones, and community-based management zones.
He said the fear is that by labeling an area as protected, the government will “tie its hands” and will not be able to take advantage of any natural resources in the area.
With the new zones, “we can have an opportunity to explore some natural resources for better economy while respecting the conservation of the environment for the prosperity of our people,” he said.
Regarding the Aural sanctuary, Mok Mareth said, an assessment should have been submitted before approval was given, and Suy Sem should have contacted the Environment Ministry before the agreement was signed.
Suy Sem said by telephone last week that the agreement did not break the law because no mining activities had yet begun.
“The company only studied the mine,” he said. “It dug the land with shovels for the study. It was not exploration.”
He said if the study, which is finished and being reviewed by ministry staff, shows that it would be economically viable, he will discuss the matter with the Ministry of Environment.
Efforts to contact Future Environments directly were unsuccessful as the company is not listed and officials at both the ministry of environment and mines said they did not know their contact information.
Aural district Deputy Chief Moung Thy said prospectors from various companies had been to the mine at least five times before the agreement with Future Environment was signed.
Moung Thy said he felt the mine was a bad idea.
“If they are allowed to explore in the sanctuary, it will badly affect the sanctuary,” he said.
Chu Chhin, the chief of Samroang village, said the last visitors were the Chinese and Cambodian prospectors who roasted the pig more than a month ago. Since then, he has not seen anyone.
Chu Chhin’s village lies just down the broken trail from the mine but he said despite the close proximity, he does not know what the prospectors are looking for.
“They never told us what it is,” he said, adding he believed the land falls within the village’s boundaries.
But contrary to environmentalists’ warnings, he said, the villagers are in favor of a mine if it means a good road will be built to their village.
“We want [Future Environment] to get a license,” Chu Chhin said. “It will mean development for this village.”
He said the villagers don’t know what the exact environmental impacts will be, but the improved access to markets and hospitals would be worth it.
Albert Weinmann, project coordinator for Lutheran World Federation, which works with villagers in the sanctuary, disagreed, saying the disadvantages of a mine—and a road—would likely outweigh the advantages.
“They don’t know what it means,” he says, pointing at the use of heavy trucks and land being taken from them. “The road is a dream, but in our experience, if you bring in a road it is misused.”
Back on the main road into the sanctuary, several workers were touching up a half-finished warehouse that will house the equipment New Cosmos needs to build a resort park on the dusty plain. Preliminary plans of the development obtained in June included proposals for a folk village, golf course, upscale residential villas, a shopping mall and hotel.
A worker said building was stopped because of the Ministry of Environment’s order, dated Dec 3, which was also signed by Mok Mareth.
Mok Mareth said an assessment is needed because of the potential impact the project could have on nearby villagers, including minority Suy villagers who have sent petitions asking that the project be stopped.
“That is our way to respond,” the minister said.
Still, he spoke in favor of eventually developing the resort, saying it would be a huge draw for tourists. “It can develop, and we can ensure the protection of the people,” he said.