Though little is known of the massive tourism project by China’s Union Development Group underway in Koh Kong province, it is certain to be grand. But, according to villagers and environmentalists, there is no guarantee that the development will leave the province’s environment intact.
The $3.8 billion project, which officials say will consist of seven so-called “mega cities” in the shape of a mythical naga head, dwarfs other large-scale investment projects currently being carried out in Cambodia and covers an area of 360 square km.
Satellite city projects on the outskirts of Phnom Penh include Camko City, which is being developed by South Korea’s World City Company and is expected to cost $2 billion and cover an area of 119 hectares.
But the only project comparable in cost is The Royal Group’s $3.3 billion tourism investment on Koh Rong off the cost of Preah Sihanouk province.
Villagers interviewed yesterday said local authorities in Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts had told them their land will be given to the Chinese company to make way for its development plans.
“I am afraid of loosing my farmland, which consists of cashew and coconut trees,” said one woman living in Kiri Sakor district, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from local authorities. “I feel sick if I think about the problems up ahead.”
“The project will affect several mango tree farms,” said another man, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “My farmland will be bulldozed.”
On May 18, about 240 villagers protested in Phnom Penh against the project, which is to be built over the next 25 years and is part of the government’s plan to develop Cambodia’s coastal provinces.
With the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the government is in the process of finalizing a strategic plan for the development of the coastal area to be carried out over the next two decades.
The plan aims at growing the coastal economy and also looks to improve infrastructure through the development of an economic corridor that runs from Kep province in the east to Koh Kong province in the west.
But the project falls squarely within the 171,250-hectare Botum Sakor National Park, one of the 34 richest repositories of fauna and flora on the planet, according to Wildlife Alliance. It contains one of only seven elephant migration routes remaining in Asia situated in the southern range of the Cardamom Mountains.
In the southern most part of the elephant corridor, the Chinese firm is planning its large-scale development projects, which include a gold course, airport and several large commercial zones.
Botom Sakor is also home to the largest mangrove eco-system on the mainland Southeast Asia and consists of thousands of hectares of sensitive wetlands.
In 2007, as Union Development Group was carrying out initial studies in Koh Kong province, the government requested the environmental group WildAid, now known as Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia, to draft ecological guidelines for tourism development along the Botum Sakor peninsula.
In its document submitted to the government in 2007, WildAid said that environmental engineering studies must include details on each waste treatment facility as well as information showing chemical and biological discharge levels into the ocean.
“Because this projected development is of an extremely large scale–seven mega cities and super large hotels with up to 6,000 rooms each–environmental engineering studies will need to be more strict than for smaller projects,” the guidelines said.
“WildAid’s concern is that infrastructure construction and industrial operations in China are famous for having created enormous pollution and environmental damage – and some of this damage is completely irreversible.”
Suwanna Gauntlett, country director for Wildlife Alliance, declined to comment yesterday due to the sensitivity surrounding the development project. An official at the Chinese company declined to comment.
Koh Kong deputy governor Sun Dara said yesterday that villagers would all be compensated fairly and concerns related to the environment were being strictly considered.
“We are helping villagers out in relevant areas,” Mr Dara said. He added, “We will keep the forest safe by preventing development in forested areas.”