THMA BAING DISTRICT, Koh Kong province – After arriving here in a bright red helicopter, government officials yesterday said they would consider canceling plans to develop a massive titanium mine in Koh Kong province due to the impact it could have on the environment and local community.
Still in its exploration stage, Cambodian company United Khmer Group plans to extract titanium from an area covering 20,000 hectares in the middle of dense forest that includes 24 water sources flowing through three separate communes.
Also at stake is a thriving eco-tourism community that employs people in 150 families in Chiphat commune, many of whom previously depended on logging and hunting activities to survive.
The area is also home to around 100 elephants and an ancient burial site that dates back to the fifteenth century.
On a visit to a reforestation project run by environmental group Wildlife Alliance yesterday, Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun, Environment Minister Mok Mareth and Chairman of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development Yim Chhay Ly, sought to put the fears of locals and environmentalists at ease by promising to consider the value of the local economy and environment before going ahead with a mine in the area.
“We have to compare the economic value gained from mining to the value of the forest. We have to reconsider,” said Mr Mareth, speaking to a group of locals and staff from Wildlife Alliance.
Mr Mareth added that the decision to visit Koh Kong province was prompted by an order from Prime Minister Hun Sen who wanted to better understand the social and environmental impact of a mine in the area.
“I understand this problem and I will bring it to consultation again,” he said.
Mr Sarun urged those concerned about the possible establishment of a mine in the area not to worry and affirmed that the government would come to a “balanced decision.”
“The government thinks a lot about this matter and the balance between conservation…and development,” he said in an interview yesterday adding, “The government will consider the cost and profit [of the mine] alongside people’s long-term interests.”
After the delegation had visited the reforestation project they flew over the site targeted by Union Khmer Group. Officials then arrived in Chiphat village where they were greeted by hundreds of locals who lined the street waving national flags for one reason only: to save their village.
Shortly before noon everyone assembled on the riverbank to watch a succession of boat races.
In a speech to crowds of local villagers attending the event, Mr Chhay Ly told people that the government would consider their natural environment before making final decision on the mine.
“The government has concluded that the protection of wildlife is a very important job,” he said. “I hope that any decision will be done with justice and truth.”
After the government delegation returned to Phnom Penh, Wildlife Alliance’s country director Suwanna Gauntlett said she was optimistic the government had understood the gravity of the threat posed by a mine in the area, which includes one of only seven remaining elephant corridors left in Asia.
“We’ve made a big step forward today,” she said in an interview. “The government wants to make a statement that the prime minister’s policy is to protect the forest, develop rural communities to fight poverty.”
But Ms Gauntlett said she was not totally convinced that plans to develop a mine would be halted.
“They’ll make a report back to the prime minister – of course with recommendations -and then it will be decided,” she said.