Kampot Provincial Governor Khoy Khun Huor said yesterday that provincial authorities will not follow a recent order by the Ministry of Agriculture to suspend a massive seafront development project until he has consulted directly with the Council for the Development of Cambodia.
The governor said that he and local authorities were not obligated to follow the ministry’s order, while he also continued to defend the coastal land-fill project. The Ministry of Agriculture has accused the firm behind the project of flouting conditions outlined in its agreement with the government.
Mr Khun Huor said he received the Agriculture Ministry’s letter on Tuesday order the project halted, but he would contact the CDC, which approves large investment projects, before taking any action.
“I did see that letter I received it yesterday. [But] I need advice from the CDC to make a decision, only the CDC has the right to make a decision regarding this project,” the governor said.
In a letter dated Jan 6 and addressed to the Kampot governor, Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun ordered provincial authorities to temporarily halt all activities of Keo Chea Properties and Development Company, as the firm had failed to meet six out of seven requirements specified by the CDC for it to fill in a large swathe of the coastline in Kampot.
The only CDC requirement sufficiently met by the company, according to the ministry, is that Keo Chea properties has properly compensated local villagers for the project’s impact on their livelihoods as fishermen.
However, local villagers claimed that they haven’t received any compensation from the firm.
The governor also said yesterday that the ministry had over-stepped its bounds in his province.
“They have no authority on the land, they just control the mangrove forest only,” Mr Khun Huor said of the Agriculture Ministry.
“Both the provincial authority and the Ministry of Agriculture are executing [institutions] in this project, only the CDC, presided over by the prime minister, has the power to decide or issue orders,” the governor continued.
Mr Khun Huor went on to say the issues raised with the company by the ministry were only “legal procedures,” while adding, in his opinion, the company had in fact fulfilled all its contractual obligations with the government.
Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun could not be reached yesterday, while Secretary of State Chan Tong Yves declined to comment, saying he was unfamiliar with the case. Ing Try, deputy director of the ministry’s Fisheries Department, also declined to comment on the Kampot governor’s refusal to carry out the Agriculture Ministry’s order.
“We already sent the letter. We need to wait for the response from provincial authorities,” Mr Try said.
Suon Sithy, secretary-general of the CDC’s Cambodian Investment Board, declined to comment on spat between the governor and the minister.
Contacted yesterday, businessman Keo Chea said he had halted all activity at the disputed site since hearing of the ministry’s letter and was now waiting for the government to contact him.
“I have stopped the filling. I am waiting for the specialist institution to point out [the mistakes] to me,” he said.
Mr Chea also denied local villagers’ claims that the project had started in July, adding, “Our company filled the coast since two months ago, it was not six months.”
Since September hundreds of villagers from Kep Thmey and Totoeng Tngai villages in Boeng Touk commune have been protesting against the project, as they fear the project-which entails filling around 200 hectares of shallow coastal waters-would destroy local fisheries and cut off their access to the sea.
International aid 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 Kampot coast, while they have also voiced concerns about an adjacent project, the “Kampot Special Economic Zone,” which is busy filling 1,000 hectares of coastal seabed.
Ngeth Soseng, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, said all work by the Keo Chea firm had stopped, but added she thought the nearby mangrove was already dying as a result of the work to date.
“The filling stopped a few days ago,” she said, adding, “Since the filling of the land the mangrove forest leaves are turning red as the company blocked the water.”
“If the CDC wants the project to be transparent it should revise its decision and do a re-evaluation,” she said, adding also that none of the local villagers had been compensated so far, despite the claim by the ministry.
Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center, said he was not familiar with the Kampot case, but added that disagreements between various government institutions and authorities over cross-sector projects and policies were not uncommon.
The fact that senior government officials have disagreed over the project’s implementation was an ominous sign for the quality of project execution and government care over the project’s impacts, Mr Virak said.
“When I hear this as a citizen it raises concerns with me about this project. Very often these concessions have a negative impact and now the [Ministry of Agriculture] makes these comments,” he said.
“It’s an issue of good governance, in managing natural resources this is important, as are transparency and accountability,” he added.