koh kong district, Koh Kong province – A sagging ferry docked at Buth Ran’s far-flung riverside hut last month, and the trucks began to roll in.
By early April, there were more than a dozen rigs and 50 laborers setting up camp behind her home. They had already begun cutting mangrove trees here in Botum Sakor National Park.
“What are they doing here?” Buth Ran, 36, wondered aloud earlier this month, looking in disbelief at the rapid transformation of her back yard from a national forest to an industrial site.
The Taiwanese company Green Rich Group Co Ltd has begun “agro-industrial” operations to grow eucalyptus in an 18,000-hectare land concession in Botum Sakor—and, many say, in violation of the law. Critics say the project violates several areas of the law, including a basic Land Law article prohibiting concessions over 10,000 hectares.
And because the government-owned land leased to Green Rich is inside a protected national park, and because the company intends to harvest the fast-growing, non-native eucalyptus, conservationists are worried.
“This is a very dangerous concession. It is basically jeopardizing the integrity of the whole protected area system,” said Marcus Hardtke, an investigator with the forestry watchdog group Global Witness.
The project has the government’s full backing, despite the absence of any management plans for the national forest. Green Rich’s land holdings and operation plans have been signed off by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Minister of Environment Mok Mareth and top officials at the Council of Ministers, according to government documents.
The government’s argument in those documents is that Green Rich’s operations are in a buffer zone that has “poor forest, unused fields and poor soil.” The operation base lies in a mangrove forest accessible only by the Khlang Yai river and is bordered by another protected area, Peam Krasop wildlife sanctuary.
“The whole area is national forest but to the north there is a space. They consider the area a buffer zone…. [Green Rich] cannot expand into the park,” said Un Chay Ly, chief of Cabinet for Koh Kong Governor Yuth Phouthong.
But Green Rich’s initial operations are already fully inside the park, according to the most recent map of the national forest, approved by Mok Mareth in 2003. Buffer zones are traditionally defined as areas outside of protected areas, and are not even mentioned in a draft law of protected areas, yet to be considered in the National Assembly.
The Ministry of Environment agreed to the Green Rich plantation even as it continues to draw up long-range plans for the national forest, said Chay Samith, the ministry’s director of the nature conservation department.
Asked about the questions surrounding the concession’s legality and warnings about eucalyptus cultivation, Chay Samith replied, “We know that, but the government has already made its decision.” He acknowledged that Green Rich had not submitted an Environmental Impact Assessment report, as required by law.
In the meantime, work is going forward at the site. A subcontractor there, who said he had previously transported logs in Kratie province for Chinese land giant Pheapimex, said earlier this month he was ordered to clear and cultivate all 18,000 hectares, as well as build a road through the forest and erect a chipping factory. He said he knew little about the project, but that mangrove trees were to be exported to a paper mill.
For hundreds of meters south into the national forest, trees had been either cut and sawed into segments or ring-barked, an act that stops a tree from growing and eventually causes it to die. The undergrowth was torched.
“We will cut the trees and plant acacia and eucalyptus,” said the subcontractor, Ear Sok Heng.
The cultivation of those plants has raised concern among environmentalists, who say they have had a devastating environmental impact in Southeast Asia and other parts of the globe. Native to Australia, eucalyptus naturally repels flora and fauna here, and in addition sells for a paltry $15 per ton, said local botanist Andrew McDonald.
“It totally wreaks havoc on natural environments,” McDonald said. “It is a horrible buffer zone plant.”
“This is a few people staking claim to these resources at a great cost to the society at large…. [To propose] the monoculture of an exotic tree in a buffer zone is just laughable,” he said.
Seedlings are already prepared in what appeared to be an experimental plot in the concession, at a second site about 5 km east of where the trucks had arrived. At that site, which workers referred to as headquarters, a dozen laborers were tilling a roughly 600-square meter plot for planting. Gibbons could be heard in the neighboring forest.
The project’s supervisor, reached in Koh Kong town, said he did not know what he was planting.
“The manager doesn’t tell me,” said the man, who only identified himself as “Huor.” He was interviewed briefly at Green Rich’s Koh Kong offices—a converted hotel owned by Meas Sitha, deputy chief of forest administration in the district. Meas Sitha’s signature is on a March 29 document giving Green Rich the go-ahead to begin work.
Reached by phone this week, Meas Sitha said the concession was legal, though he did not know if Green Rich had submitted an Environmental Impact Assessment to the ministry.
The boundaries of the land concession, and how far it extends into the park, remain unclear. The initial concession to Green Rich in 1998 totaled some 60,000 hectares, in seven disconnected plots in the country’s southwest. Inexplicably, some of those original plots extended off the coast and into the sea, according to coordinates on a 2001 government document.
The concession was reduced to 18,000 hectares in 2003, and the remaining 42,200 hectares were made protected, according to a document signed by Sum Manit, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers.
Given the secrecy with which Green Rich set up its operations, Hardtke and others worry that arrangements have been made in other protected areas under the same buffer zone plan.
“This is not a buffer zone. It is between and inside two protected areas. It is an idiotic plan,” Hardtke said. “If this is the new trend, then the reputation of the Council of Ministers and the whole government is at stake. If this is the protected area system at work, good luck.”