The government has quietly approved a 10,000 hectare plantation for a little-known company in the middle of indigenous land and key elephant habitat in Mondolkiri province, officials said Wednesday.
Mondolkiri Director of Agriculture Hor Bun Heang and Cabinet Chief Svay Sam Eang said Wuzhishan LS Group began planting in May on a small parcel of the 100-square-km plantation in O’Reang district. “The government gave the company a 10,000 hectare concession, and now the company is growing small pine tree plants on four hectares of the land,” Svay Sam Eang said.
Kith Seng also said he did not know any background information about the company, or whether it had an office in Phnom Penh. The company, which shares the name of a mountain in China, was not listed.
More worrisome to environmentalists are plans to expand the plantation to give Wuzhishan a total of nearly 2,000 square km in the province, according to a copy of a letter from the Council of Ministers to the Minister of Agriculture, obtained by The Cambodia Daily on Wednesday.
The letter, dated Aug 9, requested 199,999 hectares in two unnamed locations in Mondolkiri and recommended Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun award 10,000 hectares and resolve legal issues forbidding the government from awarding concessions larger than 10,000 hectares. “[T]he royal government has agreed in principle to the following: Agree to resolve issues according to the view of land policy and the land law by negotiating with donors as soon as possible to enable us to offer the land concession,” read the letter, signed by Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn.
Kith Seng said it was unlikely Wuzhishan LS Group would get the full 199,999 hectares because it would contradict the land law limit. It would not be the first time the government had done so. The government granted 100,852 hectares to Green Sea Industrial Co Ltd three months after the law was passed, according to the most recent report by UN special representative for human rights in Cambodia Peter Leuprecht.
A plantation of that scope would be disastrous for the environment and indigenous people who live in the region, environmentalists said Thursday.
The area is home to one of the most important elephant populations in Southeast Asia, said Joe Heffernan, Indochina Elephant Program coordinator for Fauna and Flora International. Even 10,000 hectares could harm the elephants, by breaking up their habitat and creating conflict with people working in the area.
The secrecy with which the project has proceeded is also disturbing, he said, as few outside the government seem to have been informed of the project.
“We’re looking to do quite a lot of conservation there and this kind of thing doesn’t make it easy, or demonstrate goodwill,” he said.