thma baing district, Koh Kong province – Tucked away in the heart of the forest, an ecotourism community threatened by a recently approved titanium exploration project will meet today with senior government officials who are coming to assess the damage the mine could cause, officials said yesterday.
After mounting pressure from both the local residents and environmentalists to put a halt to the mine, Environment Minister Mok Mareth, Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun and Yim Chhay Ly, chairman of the Council of Agricultural and Rural Development, are expected to arrive by helicopter to visit a tree nursery here that is supported by the environmental organization Wildlife Alliance, according to Vann Sophanna, director of the local forestry administration office.
“They are coming to make an evaluation before making a decision” on the mine, he said, referring to land where Cambodian company United Khmer Group is hoping to explore for titanium. “They want to study the situation accurately.”
He added that Forestry Administration Director Chheng Kimsun would also join the delegation to make an evaluation of the potential damage a mine in the area would have on the environment.
According to a draft copy of the schedule provided by Wildlife Alliance, the officials will fly over United Khmer Group’s exploration zone and will visit guesthouses that make up the Chiphat village ecotourism project in Chiphat commune.
Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem could not be reached while Pich Siyon, the ministry’s provincial director in Koh Kong, said he was unaware of the delegation’s arrival. Officials from United Khmer Group could not be reached.
In April this year, the government granted United Khmer Group a preliminary license to explore for titanium inside what is the largest contiguous rainforest left in Southeast Asia and home to one of just seven remaining elephant corridors in Asia.
The exploration zone covers 20,000 hectares and falls in the middle of Thma Baing district where the Chiphat ecotourism community has created 100 km of nature trails for tourists. The area is also home to at least 100 elephants, according to research conducted by Fauna & Flora International and includes the Phnom Pel burial site, which holds jars containing human skeletons that date back to the 15th century.
Environmentalists say that the sustainable nature of the way the local economy currently functions would disintegrate if mining were allowed. As would ongoing plans to implement a UN carbon-trading scheme known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries.
The mine “automatically dismisses eco-based tourism,” said Oran Shapira, project manager for Wildlife Alliance’s community-based ecotourism program, which operates in Chiphat village. “I see no reason why people would want to come and do ecotourism where there is mining.”
He added that jobs and revenues generated from mining would only benefit the community in the short term.
“After they [the company] go, what can people do?” he asked. “You need to see that you can make good money from the forest standing.
Since August 2008, the local economy has raised $55,000 in revenues from tourists who come to experience jungle excursions, boat rides and other activities like biking and bathing under waterfalls.
Twenty percent of that money, or $11,000, has been placed in a communal fund for the community to spend in any way it sees fit.
So far, the community provides 60 rooms within 12 guesthouses and 15 home stay enterprises. And there are plans to connect the village with others settlements in the area. Over the past two years, this village has seen garbage-filled streets replaced by bins, and about 60 young men that were formerly hunters or loggers in the forest have found jobs as tour guides earning a minimum of $6 per day.
The community-based ecotourism project aims to act as a long-term tool for conservation and provide alternative livelihoods for people who used to depend on the forest. In 2008, the travel publication Lonely Planet labeled Chiphat commune as one of the top 10 ecotourism destinations in the world.
Prom Heong, Chiphat commune’s Community Based Eco Tourism committee chief, said about 75 percent of villagers in Chiphat had changed their job from hunting animals and cutting trees to providing tourism services since January 2007, when Wildlife Alliance started its ecotourism project.
“If we loose all the natural and cultural resources, ecotourism will be in real trouble,” he said. “Tourists want see wildlife like elephants, tigers, monkeys, gibbons and great hornbills.”
Recognition of Chiphat’s natural importance has also generated private sector interest with the Sri Lankan company Jetwing Eco Holidays having started to build an eco-lodge in Chiphat last year, a project which has since been delayed while the government makes a decision on the mine.
Last year, more than 700 villagers in Chiphat commune signed a petition against the mining operation that was sent to provincial office.
“I want government to think about natural and cultural resources because they are nearly exhausted,” said Sim Samnang, guide chief of Chiphat’s Community-based Eco-Tourism project. “We need natural treasures to prevent natural disasters.”