At least six months after it began, the Ministry of Agriculture has ordered Kampot provincial authorities to suspend a massive seafront development project, saying the project by Keo Chea Property Development Company has not met six of seven requirements set out in the firm’s contract with the government, according to a letter from the ministry obtained yesterday.
Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun “would like to request that his Excellency [Provincial Governor Khoy Khun Huor] temporarily suspend the filling of the sea in Kep Thmey and Totoeng Tngai villages in Kampot province by Keo Chea Property Development Company, so that the company can fulfill the requirements” set by the Council for the Development of Cambodia and the Fisheries Law, according to a copy of the letter to the provincial governor dated Jan 6.
In recent months, hundreds of villagers in Toek Chhou district’s Boeng Touk commune have staged protests against the project, as they fear the project–which entails filling in around 200 hectares of shallow coastal waters–would destroy local fisheries and cut off their access to the sea.
According to the Jan 6 letter, the only requirement sufficiently met by the company is that it has properly compensated local villagers for the project’s impact on their fisheries.
In an August 2008 letter from the CDC to the company, also obtained yesterday, the CDC said that the project developer must cooperate with relevant government ministries and institutions to avoid damaging the environment and marine resources, while the project cannot block maritime routes for fishing boats.
Businessman Keo Chea said yesterday that he was aware of the letter ordering the project’s suspension and he had “slowed down” the filling of the disputed coastal area since Jan 12, adding however, that he was in the process of meeting the contract’s conditions.
“I have already done points one to three from the CDC, and point number four is in progress. I am waiting for the committee to tell me what I did wrong,” Mr Chea said, adding that he had already compensated the affected villagers according to the contract.
The villagers involved in the protest against the company, however, claimed that they have received no compensation from the firm.
Despite being aware of the letter from the Agriculture Minister calling for a halt to his work, Mr Chea said he had not yet suspended the project because provincial authorities had not yet contacted him about the ministry’s directive.
Provincial Governor Khoy Khun Huor said he had not received the minister’s letter, and maintained that the company had in fact met all the government requirements and had compensated villagers.
“I have not seen any letter,” the governor said, adding, “If there are still problems the company should work them out with the CDC.”
A representative of the local villagers, Chan Dara, said she was aware of the ordered suspension of the company’s activities and that yesterday the company’s trucks finally stopped filling in the coastline.
“Now the villagers are waiting to see the company’s activity,” she said, adding that villagers had received no compensation from Keo Chea.
“We will protest if they do not follow the minister’s order,” Ms Dara said,
“Previously we were scared because we did not understand about our rights, but now we understand…we just protect our interest and community,” she said.
Nget Soseng, Licadho coordinator for Kampot province, also said that villagers had not received compensation.
“We heard rumors of compensation, we did not see any compensation,” she said, adding, “Now we are preparing to push the governor to obey the minister’s orders.”
Mu Sochua, an SRP lawmaker from Kampot province, welcomed the Ministry of Agriculture’s initiative but said that the intervention came “very late” as the project had already caused “huge” environmental damage, while the government had ignored the villagers’ protests for months.
“Of course, we welcome the decision, but it shows a concession, a contract, is given without environmental impact studies, without consultation with local people,” she said, adding that after the start of the project “the company had many [consultation] meetings with the villagers, [but] most people did not agree.”
Ms Sochua doubted the project would now be implemented according to contract and law, adding, “I have doubts but I have hope. I hope the ministry will demand an environmental impact study…. Pressure must [also] continue on the government to mitigate the social impact.”
International donors and human rights groups have also raised concerns over the project’s impact on a unique 24,000-hectare sea-grass ecosystem situated off the coast, while they have also voiced concerns about a similar project, the 1,000-hectare “Kampot Special Economic Zone.”
This special zone project is taking place in the same commune and has filled hundreds of hectares of seabed since August 2008.
Jacob Jepsen, deputy head of Danish International Development Agency, the leading development agency for fishing resources in Cambodia, said Danida was concerned over the consequences of both projects in Kampot, in particular since no studies on their environmental and social impacts were available, while mitigation measures were also not made public.
“It is important these kinds of documents are available before work starts on the ground. That’s our concern,” Mr Jepsen said, adding Danida had requested these documents from the government in early November but had not received the documents so far.
“Our main concerns are access to water for fishing communities for livelihoods. We’re concerned about the impact on the sea-grass, we’re concerned about the mangroves that protect the coastline,” he said.