1,100 square km of conservation areas privatized in two months
Following a government announcement last month of a 500-square-kilometer economic zone planned inside Virachey National Park, new documents reveal that the government has granted 12 more economic land concessions covering 600 square km in nine other environmental conservation areas across the country.
The Ministry of Environment said the approved concessions, most of which are for agribusiness, are located in “degraded forest” areas that are now classified as “sustainable multiuse zones,” which would support economic development.
However, conservation groups said the recent surge in concessions in protected areas raised serious concerns about the conservation of Cambodia’s remaining forests.
According to copies of sub-decrees signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen between March 14 and April 1, industrial farming companies received two concessions covering 10,775 hectares in Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary in Ratanakkiri province, three concessions for 8,687 hectares in Boeng Per Wildlife Sanctuary in Kompong Thom, Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces, and a 728-hectare rubber concession inside Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondolkiri province.
Other such concessions include a 5,000-hectare area in Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province, a 6,000-hectare concession in Banteay Chmar Protected Landscape in Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces, and a 290-hectare concession in Kirirom National Park, Kompong Speu province.
In the coastal provinces of Kampot and Preah Sihanouk, Sok Kong, the hotels and filling stations operator, received a concession to clear 18,997 hectares of forest for his “eco-tourism” project in Bokor National Park, while Paradise Investment got a 9,137-hectare industrial-farming concession in Botum Sakor National Park in Koh Kong province, according to government documents.
Hoang Ang Andong Meas, a Vietnamese rubber and mining company, was given a 9,775-hectare rubber concession in Virachey National Park.
This concession brings the tally of projects approved in Virachey to five, after two businessmen were already given four concessions in February. Concessions cover a total 37,710 hectares in the Asean-heritage listed park, most of which has also been opened to mineral exploration.
In March, the Environment Ministry said the projects were part of a planned “special economic development zone” along the Lao and Vietnamese borders that would cut 50,000 hectares out of the park’s 330,000 hectares.
CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat in March also received a 4,700-hectare sugar concession in Kompong Speu province, inside Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary.
The recent slew of concession approvals—17 in total, all signed between Feb 1 and April 1—now amounts to the loss of a sweeping 111,859 hectares in 10 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, or an average of 1,997 hectares conceded every day during that period.
These parks and sanctuaries are among the 23 Environment Ministry-administered protected areas, which cover about 33,000 square km.
Thuk Kroeun Vutha, secretary of state at the Ministry of Environment, defended on Tuesday the spike in approvals of economic land concessions in protected areas, as the concessions would support economic development and only clear “degraded forest” that had little conservation value.
“We have to weigh the benefits [of development] if a forested area has no advantages left,” Mr Kroeun Vutha said. “Investment will help the communities to develop, generate jobs for them, especially building hospitals and schools.”
The ministry, he said, had studied the concessions’ environmental impacts as required by law and subsequently created a master plan for the concession areas and designated them as “sustainable multi-use zones.”
The Law on Nature Protection Areas classifies zones within the parks and sanctuaries, according to conservation priorities, into a core zone, a conservation zone, a community zone and sustainable multi-use zones.
Mr Kroeun Vutha said, “If development is permitted it will not affect the conservation areas,” adding that rivers and streams would also be spared.
However conservationists were taken aback by the overall scale of the recent concessions and said that at least several projects would remove large swathes of pristine, dense forest at the heart of some parks.
They said the developments raised serious questions about future efforts to conserve Cambodia’s shrinking forests.
David Emmett, regional director of Conservation International, said that maps available for a few of the concessions showed some would cut deep into parts of untouched, dense forest and could split up the protected areas.
“The concession in Botum Sakor is so centrally located that it could only mean the integrity of the National Park would be severely compromised,” he said, adding that concessions in the south of Virachey National Park were located in areas that were pristine evergreen forest as recently as 2006.
Botum Sakor is home to rare and endangered species such as the Asian Elephant, Sun bear, Pileated Gibbon and Sunda pangolin, according to Frontier, a conservation group that has worked there.
Mr Emmett acknowledged the Environment Ministry’s claim that there are substantial areas of degraded forest in protected areas but added the new concessions in those areas would still “have the potential to lead to more roads and development into the parks.”
Seng Teak, WWF’s country director, said the organization was worried about the surge in new concessions allocated in parks and sanctuaries.
“We are very concerned about the recent increase in economic land concessions […] as these will threaten the integrity of protected areas,” he said yesterday.
WWF’s “a big concern”, Mr Teak said, was that the government had now chosen to allocate more projects in protected areas in the near future.
He also took issue with the Environment Ministry’s approach of approving concessions, as authorities often failed to designate important conservation areas zones in the parks before allocating concessions.
“Granting economic land concession in protected areas before having a zoning plan first will likely pose significant negative impact” on ecosystems and biodiversity, he said.
Jacob Jepsen, deputy country head of the Danish International Development Agency, which co-chairs the donor forum’s technical working group on forestry policy, said the donor agency was “definitely concerned about the issuing of land concessions in protected areas.”
Mr Jepsen said at the core of this issue was the rampant, uncoordinated way in which the government issued economic land concessions.
“We’re concerned about the way it’s done, how fast it’s done and the lack of communication and coordination with which it’s done,” he said.
Mr Jepsen said issuing concessions in protected forest areas could also undermine Cambodia’s future access to carbon credit–the international climate change funds for protecting forest.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with human rights group Licadho, said the surge in land concessions inside protected areas raised concerns over their consequences on both forests and local population, as authorities usually neglected to study the social and environmental impact of concessions.
“We are worried because there might be overlap with people’s land,” he said.
Mr Kong, the Sokimex chairman, said he would use his 19,000-hectare concessions in Bokor National Park to build his mountain top eco-tourist resort, adding that due to its remote location no villagers were affected.
“Now we have all the master plans for development and some of the area will be conserved and some replanted with trees,” he said.
Mom Eng, a villager in Kratie province’s Pi Thnou commune, said yesterday however, that his village was already affected by a 5,000-hectare rubber concession in Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary, granted to Sovann Vuthy Company on March 21.
Since early April, he said, the company had been bulldozing forestlands ever closer to village farms and 10 families already lost their land.
Mr Eng said about 200 indigenous Stieng and Banong families lived in the affected area and 80 villagers had traveled to the prime minister’s residence in Phnom Penh Wednesday to ask Mr Hun Sen for help.
“We have lived here for years and where could we make a living if our farms are lost?” he said.