Luxury villas are envisioned nestled between an artificial lake and a golf course in the Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, in a preliminarily approved development plan billed as “ecotourism” by the Ministry of Environment.
Criticized by environmentalists and local villagers, the development may also include a folk village, theme park, upscale residential neighborhoods, a shopping mall and a hotel, according to preliminary plans obtained by The Cambodia Daily on Monday.
Mike Appleton, project manager for Flora and Fauna International’s Cardamom Mountains conservation project, where the Oral sanctuary is located, said Tuesday he was worried about the development, which the Environment Ministry told him had been expanded to 1,900 hectares from an initially planned 900 hectares.
“The Ministry of Environment has every right to discuss development within protected areas,” said Appleton, adding that ecologically sound developments within national parks have been successfully used to fund conservation in other countries.
“But these provisional concepts give cause for concern,” he said of the Oral sanctuary plans prepared by the Chinese firm Nanhai Architectural Design Institute for New Cosmos Development Company Ltd.
“This kind of development would be better situated outside a protected area,” he said, citing concern over the residential areas, theme park, golf course, water supply and digging out the local hot springs and surrounding wetland to create an artificial lake.
“As far as we know, the hot springs and wetland are unique in Cambodia,” he said.
FFI suspended projects within the Oral sanctuary, including a planned assessment of the hot springs, in March following violent confrontations between local villagers and park rangers. FFI has alleged that the confrontations were instigated by soldiers involved in illegal logging in the protected area.
FFI was also working with Lutheran World Services on plans to help the indigenous Suy minority prepare a proposal for a basic ecotourism development at the hot springs, including small huts and a prayer area.
Amid concerns that the project will adversely affect the minorities who consider the springs a sacred site, villagers have complained to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
CCHR investigator So Inn said Monday that villagers have reported that New Cosmos Development Ltd has hired soldiers to protect their development area, which has been staked off with red painted posts.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth could not be reached for comment this week. He has repeatedly refused to comment on this and other proposed and approved projects within protected areas that have come to light in recent months.
Chay Samith, director of the Environment Ministry’s Department of Conservation and Protection, declined to comment Tuesday. In May, he said the development was supported as an ecotourism project, though he denied having seen any plans.
Fu Xian Ting, who signed initial project proposals as New Cosmos’ representative, did not grant requests for an interview early this week. In May, he said the company was still in the planning processes and would eventually host a press conference to publicize finalized plans.
Van Sokha, secretary general of Kompong Speu provincial office, who signed off on documents May 12 detailing the marking of boundaries around the development zone, said Monday that some farms were located within the proposed resort area. But he was not sure how many, and added that the company was still in the process of studying the project’s effects.
FFI has been assured that New Cosmos will have to undertake a comprehensive environmental and social impact assessment, which would be made publicly available, before any development could proceed, Appleton said.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)