KOMPONG THOM PROVINCE, Baray district- Fisheries Department officials on Tuesday seized tractors and temporarily detained two workers in Choeung Doeung commune in an attempt to halt the construction of a yet another large-scale irrigation reservoir on the Tonle Sap lake’s floodplain.
Nao Thuok, director general of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Department, said yesterday that the action was taken against businessman Ly Chamroeun, 39, as he did not have permission from government ministries for the 523-hectare reservoir he was building in the commune, which is also a conservation zone for a critically endangered bird, the Bengal Florican, and an important fish spawning ground.
“They were plowing land in the protected area for Bengal Floricans and the flooded forest for fish spawning,” Mr Thuok said.
“This company continued to build and violated the Fisheries Law, working without proper permission from the government. I don’t know what [their actions] were based on,” he said.
Net Chhun Ean, deputy chief of the Kompong Thom Fisheries Cantonment, said two workers, Phum Chet, 22, and Eang Vorn, 19, were detained on Tuesday by fisheries and Kompong Thom Provincial Court officials, adding the two had been released later that day, but two impounded tractors would be kept as evidence by the court.
The operation on Tuesday to enforce government authority was the latest attempt to increase pressure on agri-businesses and farmers to remove 16 man-made reservoirs covering around 3,600 hectares alone in Kompong Thom province.
The government has ordered that all the reservoirs be demolished by April 30, an order that is proving extremely unpopular among the owners.
Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this month publicly vowed to oppose the surge in such reservoir constructions around the Tonle Sap lake that has taken place in recent years, calling the phenomena an “historic” mistake. Many more reservoirs, in each of the five provinces surrounding the lake, are set to be demolished on the grounds that they damage the lake’s wetlands and flooded forests, and consequently its rich fish spawning areas and unique ecosystem.
The 16 reservoirs in Kompong Thom are just the first of 113 reservoirs, spanning roughly 10,000 hectares, which the government has ordered demolished in Kompong Thom alone.
Sun Seanglay, a patrol officer at the Baray and Choeung Doeung Bengal Florican Conservation Area, said the reservoir constructed by Mr Chamroeun was located in the middle of the conservation area, which is a 9,800-hectare zone of wetlands in the southeastern floodplains of the Tonle Sap that is home to hundreds of Bengal Floricans.
“The birds are affected because the high grass and reeds have been destroyed by the construction. It destroys their habitat; they have no place to hide. The farming in that area also harms the bird’s life by using chemicals,” he said.
Mr Seanglay said his officers would place dozens of concrete pillars this week to demarcate the conservation area, following a recent order by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Reservoir owner Mr Chamroeun acknowledged on Tuesday that his reservoir had been built in a fish spawning and conservation area, but claimed that he had received support from local authorities to develop his business. He also said that he had spent around $500,000 to create the reservoir.
Officials in Kompong Thom could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Mr Chamroeun also complained that the government raid was conducted without proper notification or a court order, adding, “If I committed wrong against the law they should have arrested me…not my workers.”
Ly Poeu, a brother of Mr Chamroeun and foreman at the reservoir construction site, said his workers had spent four months last year to create a 1-meter high dike around the 523-hectare reservoir and had been constructing another 40-hectare reservoir because they thought they had full endorsement of local officials.
“The province has never stopped us,” Mr Poeu said. [Provincial officials] pushed us to go ahead with the project,” he claimed.
Mr Thuok reiterated yesterday that the first 16 reservoirs around the Tonle Sap had to be dismantled this month, regardless of previous decisions by provincial authorities and the financial impact on reservoir owners, because the Council of Minister’s had decided on their removal in November last year.
So far, 10 out of the 16 owners of the reservoirs scheduled for demolition by April 30 have refused to cooperate with the government.
Mr Thuok also said the government would take stern action against reservoir owners who continued to resist.
“If they refuse to do [demolition] on their own, we will do it by ourselves and file a complaint with the court” after the deadline passes, he said.