Logging has officially begun in Stung Treng province in preparation for the construction of a massive hydropower dam, but local authorities and villagers said Wednesday that the clearing of forest is going unchecked outside the official dam concession area.
The Lower Sesan 2 dam was approved by the National Assembly in February amid strenuous objections from environmentalists and opposition lawmakers who argued that the social and environmental costs of the dam outweighed the benefits.
The 400-MW dam—a joint venture between Cambodian businessman Kith Meng and China’s Hydrolancang International Energy Co. Ltd.—is set to displace more than 5,000 villagers in Sesan district. Studies claim that the dam could seriously affect fisheries, and in turn the livelihoods of more than 100,000 residents living upstream and downstream of the dam.
Srekor commune-level authorities have reported that logging in the 36,000-hectare reservoir area started in April, though provincial officials had denied that claim.
“Only the upper level can speak to the media more about the forest clearance for the planned dam reservoir construction,” said Tith Vy, chief of the Triage Forestry Administration, which covers both Srekor and Kbal Romeas communes. Mr. Vy confirmed that dam workers had officially begun clearing land within the reservoir area, though he declined to say when they had started.
Siek Mekong, chief of Srekor commune, claimed that the logging has now pushed past the boundaries of the concession area, and as far as 20 km from the banks of the Sesan River.
Wood cut outside the reservoir area is being passed off as wood cut inside the concession zone, and is fetching from $150 to $500 per cubic meter, depending on the quality of the timber, Mr. Mekong said.
“Then the cut logs that are felled outside the reservoir are stored inside the concession area,” Mr. Mekong said. “The majority of the villagers have agreed to log the forest to sell [the wood] to make money.”
One Srekor villager who requested anonymity said that he and members of his family are participating in the logging, safe in the knowledge that the license to clear forest for the dam reservoir would camouflage their illegal activity.
“If I refuse to do it, other villagers would still do the logging…and we need money too,” he said. “The company told us that they received a license from the government to chop down all the trees so villagers don’t need to worry,” he said, though he did not clarify which company he was referring to.
Calling the dam “a big mistake,” Meach Mean, coordinator for local rights group 3S Rivers Protection Network—which has been lobbying for a halt to construction at the site—appealed Wednesday for the government to intervene in the rampant logging, and to place clear boundaries to mark where the dam concession begins and ends.
“This project is already causing some strong illegal logging activity and they are already violating the agreement [with the government],” Mr. Mean claimed.
According to a copy of a document from Ang & Associates Lawyer Ltd. received earlier this year, Mr. Meng’s firm and a firm belonging to Sok Vanna, the brother of local conglomerate Sokimex Group founder Sok Kong, have entered a joint-venture agreement to clear the dam area.
“The plan to clear the forest land with approximately 36,000 [hectares] shall be carried out within 3 years full, namely from 2013—2015,” the contract states, adding that 1,000 hectares will be logged the first year, 13,000 hectares the second and 13,000 on the final year.
Dated January 15, the document refers to “clearing the forest land, collecting and exporting [100 percent] of round and sawn timber for possible sales and exportable to the local and foreign markets” in exchange for $3 million “in cash.”
Mr. Vanna declined to comment for this story, saying that Mr. Meng was more knowledgeable regarding the issues, his secretary, Chan Ang, said.
“He is not in the position to talk to the media about it because the key person is still Oknha Kith Meng,” Mr. Ang said.
Mr. Meng declined to comment.