Responding to questions over a nearly 190-square-km concession for rubber and other crops in Ratanakkiri’s Virachey National Park, the Ministry of Environment offered a sweeping defense of land concessions and revealed plans for a 50,000-hectare “multi-use” economic zone in the area.
The new concession and “special economic development zone” follow other plans to develop the park, the bulk of which in 2006 was opened up to mining exploration.
According to Council of Ministers records, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Feb 1 granted casino and mining operator Try Pheap two 70-year leases covering 18,855 hectares in the park’s Taveng district.
An official from An Mady Group, a plantation firm, said the company was also given a 10,000-hectare concession within the park in January.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia can allow development and investment in such an area as requested by the Environment Ministry after consultations with the relevant ministries and local authorities and local communities in accordance with the law and effective procedures,” said Chay Samith, director general of the Environment Ministry’s nature conservation department, in an e-mail.
He declined by telephone to discuss any specific land concessions in Cambodia.
However, he said in his e-mail that the ministry is also seeking to open up a 50,000-hectare area to be used as a special economic development zone in the northeast of the country.
The e-mail offers scant details on the zone, such as whether it has been approved or its exact location, though it would be located in the Dragon’s Tail area of Cambodia, where Lao, Vietnam and Cambodian borders meet.
“As for the Dragon’s tail [The Ministry]… asked for an investment project of a special economic development zone for three countries-Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos that consists of about 50,000 hectares of land,” the email said. “The area is designated as sustainable multi-use area according to the Law on Nature Protection Areas for the purpose of economic development along the Cambodian Vietnamese border”.
Mr Samith also said that the Environment Ministry has organized a border conservation area between Vietnam’s Chu Mom Rai conservation area, and Laos’ Ampham conservation area to allow for wildlife crossing, in accordance with agreements between the governments.
About 260,000 hectares of natural forestland will remain undeveloped. As for the 50,000 hectares, however, it remains unclear what the land will be used for or whether it would be classified as a Special Economic Zone.
The 333,000-hectare Asean Heritage-listed national park is considered a key regional conservation area. Not only does it contain a crucial watershed supporting the Mekong river, it is also home to globally threatened species of primate and wild cat.
Thuk Kroeun Vutha, secretary of state at the ministry of environment, said there was nothing illegal with the government’s plans, and referred questions back to Mr Samith’s department.
“It is not against the law when the government approves it,” he said.
A senior official at Council for the Development of Cambodia, which gives approval for the Special Economic Zones, said he had not seen an application for a SEZ of that size. He spoke on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the media. Most SEZs range in the size of 100 hectares or more.
Keo Chanthan, a representative of Try Pheap Import and Export, said that the company planned to bulldoze 100 km of land to construct a road leading between Taveng and Andong Meas district.
Lim Heng, deputy director general of An Mady Group, said the company is developing on degraded forest and bamboo groves, and will divide the area in two, with a 5 km space to allow wildlife to pass.
“We will have a master plan and environmental impact assessment; we do everything in compliance with the law,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Tim Sturrock)