krakor district, Pursat Province – The old man bounces down the dirt path inside a Toyota Camry, into the waiting arms of the forest.
“When I die, I don’t want to be reborn as the eagle,” says Loek Thuong, 69. “I want to be reborn as the mountain spirit, to protect the trees. Because I see the trees disappearing day by day.”
But Loek Thuong isn’t waiting until he dies. He and his fellow villagers are already protecting the forest they call their second mother. And for the time being, they have prevented Pheapimex, one of Cambodia’s biggest logging and land concession holders, from clearing the forest which provides the villagers with much of their livelihood.
Ansar Chambak commune may be only one of many that will have to take on Pheapimex, which has been blasted by the watchdog environmental group Global Witness as having “perhaps the worst record of illegal logging and bad forest management in Cambodia.” The company has been granted over 300,000 hectares of land—an area about ten times the size of Phnom Penh—in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces. It is the country’s largest land concession.
Formally granted in January 2000, the concession is still largely undeveloped. But plans for massive eucalyptus plantations and a paper mill worry environmentalists, who say that both could damage the area’s ecology and the nearby Tonle Sap. The environmentalists say legal requirements for environmental review have not been followed, and that the wording in the concession agreement essentially gives the land away.
The concession’s future awaits new forestry and land laws still being drafted in Phnom Penh. But with forestry concessions under scrutiny because of past abuses, some observers fear land concessions may provide the next dangerous loophole for environmental abuse.
In early 2000, some men came to Um Huot’s temple council to ask for permission to build a red-dirt road into the forest.
Um Huot asked why the road was being built, and when he heard of plans for the plantation, his heart sank. He had once been a refugee along the Thai border and had heard farmers near massive eucalyptus plantations in Thailand complain that the thirsty eucalyptus trees dried up their land and reduced its fertility. The Thai farmers also complained that the wastewater from pulp and paper factories was polluting streams and rivers.
Um Huot told fellow villagers that their communal forestland was threatened. By the time a Pheapimex representative came to meet with the villagers in April 2000, bringing news of a plantation that would bring jobs and development to the area, the villagers were stony-faced. A couple months later, when Pheapimex officials tried to enter the forest to begin marking boundaries, local villagers blocked the roads with logs and their bodies.
Pheapimex pushed ahead. In December 2000 the company signed an agreement with the Chinese State Farms Corporation to build a $70 million joint venture pulp and paper mill in Kompong Chhnang to process plantation-grown eucalyptus. The deal was to be financed by the Import-Export Bank of China. Observers say there is no evidence that construction has begun on the mill.
Still unsure of Pheapimex’s plans, Um Huot and Loek Thuong took their case to Phnom Penh, bringing with them a protest petition signed by 703 villagers from six villages to show to several NGOs and government officials. NGO representatives have since visited the commune. But the government never responded, Um Huot said.
Among the NGOs that did respond was Legal Aid of Cambodia, which asked British forestry specialist PD Hardcastle for an opinion. Last June, Hardcastle concluded that the sites he visited in Pursat were too rocky and flood-prone to sustain a viable eucalyptus plantation.
“I find it difficult to believe that the proposal would show a positive financial return,” Hardcastle wrote. He speculated that “the objective [of the concession] would be to acquire land and influence rather than to grow pulpwood.”
Hardcastle said planting eucalyptus would likely have little negative environmental impact on the area, because the forest had already been logged in recent years. But he warned that the pulp mill could cause serious harm if chemical processes were used, rather than the semi-mechanical method that has become more commonly used.
Regardless of the environmental impact, the value of the forest to the villagers of Ansar Chambak cannot be doubted.
“This is resin,” Loek Thuong said one afternoon, pointing at a pool of black liquid nestled in the crook of a tree. “We can get it from the big trees. They use it to build boats and ships.”
Loek Thuong strolled through the forest, pointing out bushes that could be transformed into medicines and plants that could be used as rattan to make furniture.
Within a few minutes more villagers emerged from the forest. They were picking vines to be woven into fishing baskets or tapping palm trees for wine. They smoked cigars made of forest herbs and wrapped in palm leaves.
Pao Pheap, 30, was looking for small timber to make a fence for his property. “We dare not cut the big trees, because they produce the resin,” he said.
In April the forest’s trees will begin producing fruit that can be picked and sold on the side of the road for 7,000 or 8,000 riel (about $1.75-$2.00) a day, said Soeun Chan Thou.
“We have free time [to go into the forest] until it rains, and then we go to the paddy field again,” said the 22-year-old man, who was collecting vines to attach to palm trees for climbing. “If I do not get rice, I can have extra income by collecting the vine, the fruit or the herb.”
As they walked home to their villages that afternoon, kicking up dust that drifted in the slanting sunlight, the villagers seemed unanimously negative about the plantation. “We don’t believe the company will provide jobs,” said Ny Non, 19. “We’re not concerned about the jobs, because if they cut the trees, then we lose the benefits forever. There will be no more trees.”
Although the planned eucalyptus plantation is the country’s largest land concession, it is just a fraction of Pheapimex’s total holdings. They add up to about one million hectares, or just under six percent of Cambodia’s total land area, according to Global Witness.
The company is one of the concessionaires that the environmental watchdog terms “untouchables” because it is believed to have close connections to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government. Company owner Cheung Sopheap, commonly known as Yiey Phu, is believed to be a close friend of the prime minister. Her husband, company director Lau Ming Kin, is an adviser to Hun Sen on foreign investment. Pheapimex is believed to be one of the top corporate donors to the CPP.
Lau Ming Kin did not respond to repeated phone calls or visits to Pheapimex’s Daun Penh district headquarters, where guards would not let a reporter past the gate.
A Cambodian subdecree passed in 1999 requires companies granted a concession over 10,000 hectares, or operating a pulp or paper mill, to prepare an environmental impact report. The Pursat contract does not include such a requirement. The Kompong Chhnang contract is unavailable.
“Pheapimex has the largest land concession area but is the only land concessionaire that is not required to produce a management plan as part of its investment agreement,” states a Global Witness report.
Pheapimex never informed the Ministry of Environment about the concession, said Yim Cham Nan, monitoring officer with the ministry’s Department of Environmental Impact Assessment. After ministry officials received a letter from villagers protesting the plans, the department ordered Pheapimex to prepare a review, Yim Cham Nan said. They have not received a response, he said.
Also missing from the contract are details on how much rent, if any, Pheapimex must pay for the vast landholding.
“This contract does not attribute the annual rental fee because the land concession will be approved by the government,” reads a portion from the Pursat contract. “At the present time, the government is not ready to collect the annual land rental fee. If the law governing the rental fees is established, this contract will be put in practice in accordance with the law and decision of the government.”
The concession proposed a first stage of planting for 6,800 hectares near Ansar Chambak commune. While that project appears stalled, planting has begun on a 600-hectare plantation about 20 km from the town of Udong, say NGO observers who have visited the plantation.
Cambodian law allows the government to fine or close down the operations of a company that ignores environmental impact requirements, Yim Cham Nan said. But some companies ignore them, acknowledged Leang Mengleap, vice-chief of the enviornmental impact department’s administrative office.
“It is very difficult to enforce the law in Cambodia,” Leang Mengleap said. “Some companies do an [Environment Impact Assessment], some do not.”
Legal advisers to the Ansar Chambak villagers say the draft land law now under review could help them in their fight against the plantation. The draft land law does not permit land concessions over 10,000 hectares, and orders that existing concessions that are larger “shall be reduced.” If the law is passed by the National Assembly it could lead to the breakup of
the concession, said Ear Sopheap, a lawyer for Legal Aid of Cambodia, which is reviewing the case.
Global Witness lists about 600,000 hectares of land concessions throughout Cambodia as
of last year. Though the land concessions are supposed to involve areas that are not forested, much of the land actually is forested,