A Chinese and Cambodian crew of more than 30 men began clearing land in Pursat province’s Ansa Chambok commune, commune officials and villagers said Thursday, confirming the start of a more-than-3,000-square-km paper plantation project stalled by local opposition in 2001.
Land and forest giant Pheapimex Co, Ltd sent machinery and 32 workers to the commune, in Krakor district, on Wednesday, said Lanh Sithon, Ansar Chambak commune chief.
“As far as I know the company will start clearing now,” he said. “The villagers are angry, but it is the government’s work.”
The large area is a section of the 315,028 hectares of land granted in 2000 to Pheapimex as two contiguous economic concessions in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces for a paper pulp plantation, according to copies of the contract.
The company attempted to begin clearing forest in the same commune in 2001, but stopped in the face of strident opposition from NGOs and local villagers
.Early last month, a group of forestry officials and
representatives from Pheapimex visited Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces, sparking fears clearing would resume.
On Wednesday, workers and equipment rolled into a site about 5 km from Kbal Damrei village, said one community leader who asked to remain anonymous. On Thursday, the community leader visited the site and found seven Chinese workers and 25 Cambodian workers with five chain saws, one bulldozer and one excavator. The company had already cleared approximately one hectare, he said, and workers said more equipment was scheduled to arrive today.
Listed numbers for Pheapimex, owned by well-known business woman Cheung Sopheap, were out of service Thursday. A guard at Pheapimex’s Phnom Penh headquarters told a reporter that no staff were in the compound.
Kith Seng, director of land planning at the Ministry of Agriculture, said Thursday the company was allowed to clear land that was not forested and did not belong to villagers.
But villagers say the land being cleared includes forest, farms, grazing land, and villages, and more than 500 are planning to protest to try to stop the clearing, community representatives said.
The clearing coincides with a country visit by the UN human rights representative Peter Leuprecht, who has repeatedly criticized economic concessions as hurting the poor. Leuprecht met this week with villagers affected by concessions to gather their complaints to present to Prime Minister Hun Sen and other officials.
In an Oct 18 speech at a forum on land issues, Hun Sen himself roundly criticized economic concessions as hurting the poor, displacing villagers, and being used as a loophole to circumvent a current logging ban. He also vowed to cancel such detrimental concessions and to shrink those that are over the 2001 Land Law’s limit of 10,000 hectares.
Officials from the Ministries of Agriculture and Land Management, however, apparently washed their hands of the Pheapimex project, though environmentalists have called it an economic, environmental and social disaster.
Kith Seng said the company is allowed to begin clearing. He said that although a committee will eventually re-evaluate existing concessions, the evaluation won’t take place for a very long time.
Asked whether work would be stopped amid villagers’ complaints, he said, “that is a high level problem; you may ask a high level official.”
Though he is the deputy chairman of a working group on land issues, Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun said he is not in charge of economic concessions and directed questions to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
But Seng Thany of the Ministry of Land Management directed questions about the re-evaluation of concessions back to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, have put the onus on Hun Sen to stop the clearing and instigate a re-evaluation of the Pheapimex concession.
“If [Hun Sen] takes no action at all, it will just reinforce the notion that Cambodia’s natural resources are a playground for the cronies of senior officials,” said Mike Davis of forestry watchdog Global Witness.
He added that it will test whether “what he said in his speech was simply designed to [appease] the donors ahead of the Consultative Group meeting” in December, where donors pledge aid for the coming year.