Clearing of Grasslands Igniting Villagers’ Anger

o’reang district, Mondolkiri province – A Chinese company is burning vast swathes of Mon­dolkiri’s famed grasslands in preparation for a massive pine tree plantation that workers say will cover thousands of hectares of land.

Despite official denial that the project is moving forward, Wuz­hishan LS Group has already imported more than 500 workers from Kompong Cham province, and started at least two of 10 planned pine nurseries, several company workers said.

To ready hillsides for planting during the next rainy season, the company has been spraying herbicide in O’Reang district and then setting the hillsides on fire since July, said the company workers interviewed last week.

“The company will plant from the Vietnamese border to the other end of O’Reang district,” said a Cambodian member of staff at one of the company’s pine nurseries in O’Reang district’s Sen Monorom commune, ap­proximately 10 km from Sen Monorom town. The staff member declined to reveal his name.

That nursery alone already has more than 1 million pine seed­lings, enough for more than 100,000 hectares. One thousand more workers are scheduled to arrive within months, several workers at the nursery claimed.

The project has moved forward despite complaints from more than 2,000 villagers, mostly indig­enous Phnong minor­ities, living in three villages. They said last week that the land awarded to the company includes traditional grazing and burial grounds, and that there have been reports of  illnesses since the herbicide spraying and burning began.

The smoke from the burning has choked their villages, causing heart palpitations, dizziness, congestion, nausea and eye infections, said Por Le, 34, an indigenous Phnong woman who lives in Sen Monorom commune’s Pou Hsam village.

“Many villagers felt dizzy, and had headaches, sometimes they vomited or had diarrhea,” she said.

Por Le’s 17-year-old daughter began vomiting violently and had to be taken to a clinic after drinking stream water that villagers suspect was contaminated by the herbicide, she said.

Officials have both denied and downplayed the developments in Mondolkiri province.

Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun said on Monday that Wuzhishan had not been granted any land.

“It is not official, the Ministry of Agriculture has not yet approved it,” Chan Sarun said. He declined to explain how the company had been allowed to proceed with its work in Mondolkiri, which can be easily seen from the road to the provincial capital.

Mondolkiri Agriculture Depart­ment Director Hor Bun Heang said in September that the company had been granted 10,000 hectares of land. A Wuzhishan company representative in Phnom Penh also confirmed last week that work was under way in Mondolkiri and other provinces.

District and commune authorities, meanwhile, said they have not been consulted about the Wuzhishan project.

“I tried to inform the provincial authorities to take action against the company that uses the herbicide to kill the grass and that affects the people’s health. But the provincial authorities ignore their complaints and the company refuses to meet with locals,” El Buncy, Sen Monorom commune police chief, said last week.

The Wuzhishan project first came to light in a letter dated

Aug 9 from the Council of Min­isters to Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun and obtained by The Cambodia Daily.

The letter, which referenced Prime Minister Hun Sen, asked that Chan Sarun grant Wuz­hishan 10,000 hectares, and then “to resolve the land policy and land title law by negotiating with the donors very soon” in order to grant 199,999 hectares.

The company is backed by Choeng Sopheap, the owner of land and timber giant Pheapimex Co Ltd, according to officials, including Hor Bun Heang.

Wuzhishan also appears to be involved in recent clearing on controversial land concessions awarded to Pheapimex in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang prov­inces, in which protesters against the forest clearing were the target of a grenade attack earlier this month.

Protesters in the two provinces said workers told them that Wuzhishan has been managing the clearing.

Observers have urged the government to take action to ensure that land concessions are only allowed to proceed in accordance with the law, and to the benefit of local communities.

Hun Sen vowed last month to revoke illegal concessions and redistribute land to the poor.

Teak Seng, country director of the NGO World Wildlife Found­ation, which has projects in Mondolkiri, praised Hun Sen’s Oct 18 speech, and noted that the government should ensure that concessions are awarded transparently, with the consultation of locals and with thorough and independent assessments of the environmental and social im­pacts.

“If the government has the willingness to address these issues, they will be resolved quickly,” Teak Seng  said.

“It’s very much dependent on the will of the government.”

 

 

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