An Australian mining company has signed a memorandum of understanding to search for minerals inside Ratanakkiri province’s pristine Virachey National Park, officials and a company representative said.
However, government officials had scant details about the proposed work of Battle Mountain Minerals Ltd, in the Ratanakkiri province protected zone, which includes the remote Dragon’s Tail region.
Chea Sieng Hong, secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said Friday that the government has inked an agreement with Battle Mountain Minerals.
“I remember [a Memorandum of Understanding] was signed a year ago,” he said, adding that the agreement permitted Battle Mountain Minerals to do low-level research for minerals within Virachey, but not to undertake exploration.
He referred further questions to Sok Leng, director of the ministry’s mineral department, who could not be reached for comment.
The Cambodian government in August lifted a 12-year prohibition on mining in protected areas.
Pichaya Fitts, World Bank senior communications officer in Bangkok, said the Bank had learned of possible plans to mine in Virachey and was concerned by the news.
“We received information about same concession from an independent source and have been looking into this issue,” she wrote in an e-mail Monday.
“We would like to reassure you that we will be following up on this issue with counterparts within government.”
Since 2000, the Bank has provided $1.91 million in loans and $2.75 million in grants to an Environment Ministry program designed to protect Virachey National Park and enhance its management, according to Fitts.
According to recently obtained maps generated using data published by the Laos government’s Ministry of Mines and Energy, a 254,600-hectare concession is situated on the Cambodian side of the Lao-Cambodia border.
According to the maps, 180,000 hectares of the concession, which is labeled “Battle Mountain Minerals Ltd,” are located inside Virachey, which covers 332,500 hectares of Ratanakkiri province.
Yin Kim Sean, secretary of state at the Environment Ministry, said he was unfamiliar with the matter and knew nothing of the Laotian maps but added that he doubted such a large concession could exist.
Under Cambodian law, the legal size limit for land concessions is 10,000 hectares.
Simone Phichit, deputy director-general of the Lao Ministry of Mines and Energy’s mines department, said Tuesday by telephone from Vientiane that he preferred to answer questions regarding the Cambodian information on the maps via e-mail. However, he had not responded to e-mailed requests for comment by Tuesday evening.
The directors of Battle Mountain Minerals, Australians David Evans and Jeremy Snaith, who are also the current directors of Sydney mining company Jupiter Mines, could not be contacted for comment.
Though Jupiter Mines remains a minority shareholder in Battle Mountain Minerals, Jupiter is neither responsible for nor actively monitoring Battle Mountain Minerals’ activities, said Robert Benussi, Jupiter Mines’ acting chief executive officer.
“We’re just a minority shareholder, no direct interest,” Benussi said by telephone from Sydney on Monday.
Efforts to reach Snaith at a Sydney telephone number provided by Benussi were unsuccessful Monday. Benussi said he thought Evans may be in Cambodia or Thailand, but was unsure of this.
Sydney-based lawyer Ross Hill, currently representing Snaith and Evans, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday that his clients are working closely with Cambodian government officials on their mining projects in the country.
“There are 14 separate agreements for exploration of metallic minerals in Cambodia, hence no issues arising as to the size of the holding[s] which were duly approved by the [Industry] Ministry,” Hill wrote.
“Battle Mountain is in close consultation with the relevant Cambodian authorities regarding exploration planning and protection of sensitive areas using the best environmental practices,” he added.
Hill also said he had advised his clients not to comment on Australian media reports of a recent court case in Abu Dhabi as the case is now part of a criminal defamation action in Australia.
Australian newspapers The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reported last month that Snaith and Evans were convicted by a court in Abu Dhabi for mid-air antics, including lewd and drunken behavior, on an April 26 Etihad Airways flight from Sydney to the United Arab Emirates.
The airline scandal caused Jupiter Mines to cancel the pair’s consulting contracts and on Aug 15, Jupiter Mines shareholders are set to vote on whether to remove Snaith and Evans as company directors, Jupiter’s Benussi said.
An assistant sales manager at the Phnom Penh Hotel said Friday that a company doing business both as Jupiter Mines and Battle Mountain Minerals had rented office space at the hotel but broke its lease three to four months ago.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said he was unaware of any mining planned for Virachey National Park.
“I think the national park is a protected area in which no investment should take place. Forests and animals need to be protected,” he added. “If this is true, it raises my concerns and I urge them to obey the Land Law.”
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)