Australian Firm Plans B’Bang Timber Project

An Australian timber company is seeking permission to plant teak and mahogany trees as well as other crops on as much as 100,000 hectares of largely deforested Bat­tambang province land, according to government officials, a company executive and associates.

The project may involve planting within the heavily degraded Ro­niem Daun Sam Wildlife Sanctuary, a provincial environment department official said.

Mark Rowbottam, executive director of Integrated Forestry Holdings, Ltd, which is headquartered in Perth, Western Australia, said by telephone Thursday that his company was hoping to join together different plots of land to form the plantation but declined to specify their locations.

IFH is seeking to acquire the use of two to three plots totaling less than 40,000 hectares, with the re­maining hectares under cultivation to be under “contract farming” by other parties, he said.

“Ideally we would like to have ac­cess to a production area of 100,000 hectares or above,” he said.

According to a company pamphlet, “IFH is a tropical hardwood company whose primary business is the production of sawn wood.”

The company, which also has holdings in the Solomon Islands, “is committed to sustainable harvesting practices that have minimal impact on the forest and environment,” the undated pamphlet states.

Rowbottam stressed Thurs­day that the project would benefit the environment and would not involve clearing any forest.

“What we’re trying to do is take degraded, deforested or environmentally damaged land and return it to use,” he said. “We’re trying to be responsible and do something sensible.”

Battambang Provincial Governor Prach Chan said Wednesday that provincial authorities were reviewing the company’s plans and that he was personally favorable to them.

“When we have such companies to plant trees, we will have more trees for our environment and more work for our people,” he said.

Cambodian business tycoon Nang Sothy, president of Royal Phosphate Ltd and a member of the board of Attwood Import Ex­port Company, said Wednesday he was in partnership with Rowbottam over the plantation project.

Total investment in the project, principally through unnamed UK financial backers, may rise to as much as $150 million, he said.

The project would be cautious not to violate the legal limit of 10,000 hectares per individual economic land concession, he said.

“We need a very legal, legal way to do the business,” he said.

SRP Secretary-General Mu So­chua said Thursday that, while she was unfamiliar with the project, similar large-scale undertakings in Cambodia had proven to be of little benefit to the public.

“The problem with this kind of approach is that until now the Cam­bodian people have yet to see a positive result from such investments,” she said, adding that the burgeoning crises of landlessness and dispossession among the poor was a greater priority.

“This approach is not suitable un­til the issue of land can be resolved so that people do not suffer.”

Environment Ministry officials could not be contacted Thursday, however Rowbottam wrote in an e-mail that the project would employ large numbers of people and promote local agriculture.

The “initial concept is for a combination plantation, eg teak, ma­hogany and other timber species in conjunction with replanting of nat­ive Cambodian species and a shorter term crop such as jatropha,” he wrote.

Jatropha trees can be used in the production of the environmentally friendly fuel bio-diesel.

“The general concept would be to have enough productive land to support the venture and then en­courage local farmers and land owners to grow crops of trees of jatropha to build capacity,” he wrote.

“The venture would be labor in­tensive and employ a significant workforce.”

Chhay Youp, director of the Bat­tambang provincial environment department, said Thursday the largely deforested Roniem Daun Sam Wildlife Sanctuary was under consideration for the plantation project.

Authorities reduced the sanctuary’s size in 2003 from 178,000 hectares to 40,000, then later to 35,000, due to settlement by area in­habitants and environmental degradation, he added.

“We are looking at the Roniem Daun Sam sanctuary for them but we still need to study it first because we have some people living there, and we need to solve the problem with the villagers,” he said.

Speaking at the inauguration of the sanctuary’s headquarters in 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said the sanctuary had lost 50 percent of its wildlife habitat.

The sanctuary was among the top three Cambodian protected areas facing the combined threats of land encroachment and illegal logging, the international conservation group WWF reported in 2004.

“Now that Roniem Daun Sam has almost no trees, it looks like a tiger’s skin,” Chhay Youp said, referring to the sparse strips of forest remaining.

“If this company can plant trees in this area, it will be good for the environment.”

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