Environmentalists cite conflict of interest between gov’t and extractive industries
An official from the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy represented a mining company exploring titanium in Koh Kong province at a meeting there on Tuesday, according to a report published Wednesday on the website of environmental group Wildlife Alliance.
According to the report, a man identifying himself as the chief of the ministry’s mining office delivered a presentation on United Khmer Group’s business plan in front of a government committee investigating the potential damage the mine could do to the local environment and economy.
“Of particular concern was that the company’s presentation was actually given by a government official working for the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy,” Wildlife Alliance wrote in its report.
“The title slide of the presentation stated that it had been prepared by United Khmer President and CEO Chea Thavaracheat—who was in attendance Tuesday night—but the presentation itself was given by Chuop Sokuntheara, who identified himself as the chief of the mining office at [the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy].”
“The conflict of interest was readily apparent and Chuop Sokuntheara did little more than deflect questions posed by government officials,” Wildlife Alliance added.
Mr Sokuntheara’s actual title is chief of the GeoEnvironment Office in the ministry’s General Department of Mineral Resources. Reached by telephone yesterday, he said he was ordered by Sok Leng, director of the department, to represent United Khmer Group.
“In a democratic country, [the company] has the right to speak or not,” he said, adding that he had no role in making decisions about the titanium mine.
Mr Leng could not be reached.
Sieng Sothan, director of the Department of Geology inside the General Department of Mineral Resources, said yesterday he was unaware of why Mr Sokuntheara had represented United Khmer Group.
“The decision comes from above,” he said.
Tuesday’s meeting came after Environment Minister Mok Mareth, Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun and Rural Development chairman Yim Chhay Ly, visited Chiphat commune last month and promised the local community that the government would halt the project if investigations proved the mine was a threat to the local environment.
United Khmer Group is exploring for titanium in a densely forested area covering 20,000 hectares. The swath of land is home to 24 natural water sources and more than one-quarter of the remaining wild elephants in Cambodia.
The area is the site of a thriving community-based eco-tourism community that was set up by Wildlife Alliance in January 2007.
Environmentalists say a mine in the area would jeopardize all of that. They have long criticized conflicts of interest between the government and companies working in the extractive industries.
“It should be more transparent on that I think,” said Mam Sambath, chairman of Cambodian for Resource Revenue Transparency. “If there is [a] government official involved in that, how can we keep this transparent? Again, the government has to play an important role in ensuring enforcement of the law, transparency and accountability.”
Last month, government officials in Siem Reap province said Major General Nem Meng of RCAF is a stakeholder in a copper company set to acquire a mining license in Siem Reap province.
But Mr Sokuntheara and other government officials yesterday denied that the government had any business interest in the United Khmer Group.
“I don’t have any share or position in the company,” Mr Sokuntheara said. “I just talked on behalf of the ministry and industry to defend the project.”
According to Wildlife Alliance, United Khmer Group’s presentation to the committee was “light on evidence, claiming that the mine area held billions of dollars of titanium ore, but in no way explaining how the firm had come to know that this was the case.”
The company also claimed that the mine would be located in an area of sparse forest cover and bamboo.
“This last assertion is nothing less that a lie,” Wildlife Alliance said.
Wildlife Alliance also reported that Hing Thoraxy, secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, asked why the presentation delivered on behalf of United Khmer Group had no input from mining experts or engineers.
Suwanna Gauntlett, country director for Wildlife Alliance, wrote in an e-mail yesterday that she was confident the government’s committee would understand the negative effects a titanium mine would have on the environment and eco-tourism community.
“We presented our findings, and we are confident that the committee was receptive,” she wrote. “We’ve made our presentation, and we know we have been heard, and we have had a very positive response.”
She added that Wildlife Alliance had no knowledge of the identity of Mr Thavaracheat, United Khmer Group’s chief executive.
The Council for the Development of Cambodia is scheduled to make a decision on the mine on Dec 21.