At the entrance of the Botum Sakor national park in Koh Kong province stands a sign that reads “These natural resources belong to the state and they are not for sale to private owners.” It was erected around 2006 by Koh Kong’s provincial hall and the Ministry of Environment, the very same groups who, two years later, started selling close to half of that very same national park to the Chinese company Union Development Group, or UDG.
The Koh Kong provincial government excused the sale of one of the nation’s most important natural assets as necessary in order to develop the economy of Koh Kong and provide jobs to the local communities. What has ensued in the eight years since is nothing short of outright criminal. The more than 1,000 local families living alongside the coast of the national park, who up until then had enjoyed a more than decent standard of living as fishermen and living off what their fertile lands provided them, were systematically cheated, misinformed, and coerced into leaving their rightful lands to make way for this mammoth “development” project. They were promised compensation packages including monetary remuneration, jobs, a new home and agricultural land in relocation sites nearby. They were also told they had no choice but to accept these terms and leave, warned that if they didn’t, they would be removed by force anyway and receive nothing in return.
Misinformed, scared, and without anyone to turn to for help, most of the villagers accepted and started moving to their new homes. When they got there, they were shocked to see that they had been dumped onto completely infertile land without access to water, electricity or health care facilities. Their new homes were made of cheap wood that was literally falling apart in front of their eyes. The five hectares of land they were promised were either nowhere to be seen or located far from their homes, in some cases on rocky hillsides or made up of completely infertile soil. Poverty and desperation soon took over their lives, made worse by the fact that the few jobs available were badly paid day-labor jobs for the very same company that had thrown them off their lands in the first place.
Needless to say, the fate of Cambodia’s largest national park was as doomed as that of the thousands of villagers who had seen their very futures snatched from them. An orgy of destruction soon took over the once pristine forest, regarded before the pillage started as one of the world’s 25 top biodiversity hotspots.
Make no mistake, the heinous crimes against the local communities’ most basic of human rights, this blatant theft of a precious state asset that belonged to all of us, was not the work of an evil Chinese company. It was, pure and simple, a crime carried out with the connivance and outright involvement of several state organs. Provincial and district authorities were the ones who time and again falsely classified the local communities living in the park as illegal squatters. It was army units who, under the direct command of UDG, set fire to the homes of those who refused to leave. Koh Kong’s prosecutors and judges were the ones who ordered that charges against peaceful protesters be laid. Police units, working hand in hand with private security firms, were the ones who attacked time and again the few villagers who remained strong in their resolution not to meet the fate of their neighbors and refused to leave. And so on.
Now that the dust has started to settle, the sheer scale of this scandal is becoming all too apparent. Most of the houses in the relocation site sit decrepit and empty. Many of the site’s residents have migrated to Thailand and Phnom Penh to find work as low-paid laborers. A substantial portion of villagers have started returning to the coast in order to resume their lives as fishermen, and some have even tried settling back on what used to be their land.
What happened to UDG’s grandiose plans to invest several billion dollars and turn this area into a “tourism mecca?” Well, the company is now busy selling off small plots of land along the park’s coast to the highest bidders, and, save for a hotel and golf course catering for the rich, UDG’s original plan to develop their economic land concession into a “second Hong Kong” is nowhere to be seen.
So, allow me to end with a key question here—one that all Cambodians who are worried about the direction our country is going in are surely asking themselves: How long are we going to allow this to happen?
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson is a co-founder and director of the environmental protection organization Mother Nature.