A 5,000-hectare banana plantation, proposed by a company associated with Australia’s former treasurer, is drawing objections from both the Forestry Administration and an environmental NGO because it would sever a wildlife corridor near the Cardamom Mountains vital to one of the largest elephant populations in the country.
The project in Koh Kong’s Thmar Baing district, if approved, would occupy a narrow strip of land between the Cardamom Mountains and Kirirom National Park used by elephants and other wildlife, said Vann Sophanna, chief of the Northern Tonle Sap lake inspectorate.
“There would be a lot of impact on the area, meaning that it’s not possible for the project to go ahead,” he said, adding that other forestry officials have voiced similar concerns. “It isn’t proper to cut down forest for banana plantations.”
He said the company, Indochina Gateway, met with forestry officials and the NGO Wildlife Alliance to discuss their proposal several weeks ago.
“The investors made an evaluation saying they will not do any harm to the area because they have skill and experience,” he said. He said he did not know when the Agriculture Ministry might consider the plan.
The project, which would require a series of other government approvals, would be the latest potentially lucrative project to arouse the concerns of environmentalists, furthering the debate of conservation over development.
The area is in the same province as a proposed titanium mine that would have removed thousands of hectares of dense forest in the southern Cardamom Mountains. Forestry Administration officials opposed the project, but the Cambodian Investment Board initially approved the mine in February to the dismay environmentalists. Prime Minister Hun cancelled it earlier this month.
John Anderson, executive director of Indochina Gateway, declined to comment on its plans in Koh Kong.
“We have a number of steps of to go before we talk about anything concrete,” he said.
Last year, Indochina Gateway announced plans to raise $600 million for agriculture investments including sugar, bananas and rice plantations. The firm is being advised by Sydney-based BKK Partners, in which former Australian Treasurer Peter Costello is a partner. Mr Costello was Australia’s treasurer from 1996 to 2007.
Indochina Gateway said last year that it would launch its first investment possibly in the first half of 2010, but so far the company has made no announcements.
John Maloy, chief of communications for the environmental NGO Wildlife Alliance, said the plantation would be in the worst possible location for the area’s 150 to 200 elephants, possibly the largest elephant population in the country, and other critically endangered royal turtles and Siamese crocodiles. It would encourage conflicts between elephants and people, as elephant migratory routes are disrupted.
“It is bad idea. The essential problem is the location,” he said. Elephants need that strip to migrate from Kompong Speu to Koh Kong.
The company also has applied for a 20,000 hectare natural area, which is already populated by people, he said.
Under the arrangement, elephants would have two detrimental choices, visit the banana plantations, which elephants would be naturally drawn to, or trek through populated areas.
“If the elephants come into contact with people, that could be very dangerous,” he said.
Even so, he gave credit to the company for including an NGO in talk about its plans.
Matthew Rendall, a partner in the legal consultancy Sciaroni & Associates, said he would expect an Australian company to think twice in the face of concerns over such an environmentally significant area. Western companies often face strong scrutiny and pressure abroad and with shareholders when NGOs criticize their investments, he said.
“You have to balance those interests, and it is very tough to find that balance. At the end of the day, they might find the concerns of their investors and the international community might outweigh the profits of this investment,” he said.