As about 100 fishermen in Koh Kong province on Wednesday resumed their monthslong campaign against a company they accuse of illegal sand dredging, an environmental NGO claimed the firm was now hiring locals as security guards in an attempt to divide the community.
Sorn Chandara, an activist from the NGO Mother Nature, said that he and seven colleagues joined the villagers to prevent barges and excavators operated by Direct Access from dredging the Andong Teuk estuary in Botum Sakor district.
The NGO and fishing community accuse the company of dredging too deep, causing pollution, riverbank collapses and a drop in fish and crab stocks.
Mr. Chandara said that 10 of the company’s 38 barges and two of its eight excavators were operating in the estuary Wednesday. As of about 5 p.m., the villagers and activists were attempting to tow away the two barges transporting the excavators, he said.
“Local villagers…used seven boats to try to chase the two excavators from the estuary,” he said, adding that the pilots of the barges claimed their vessels had broken down and could not move.
“Villagers seized a [third] barge and ordered the driver to pull the two broken [barges],” Mr. Chandara said.
According to the activist, the barge pilot went along with the villagers’ demands because he was likely intimidated by the group, which had surrounded his vessel with the seven fishing boats.
Mr. Chandara said Direct Access had now hired about 10 local fishermen, who told Mother Nature that they were each being paid $10 per day to work as security guards for the barges in case things turned violent.
“I think this is the company’s strategy, because they want to divide the community,” he said. “The company doesn’t want to use [police] forces on the barges because the public will criticize them, so that’s why they use these people.”
Direct Access could not be reached for comment.
Botum Sakor district governor Orn Virak said police would be called in only if Direct Access requested their help.
“For now, we don’t have any plans to arrest any protesters,” he said, adding that he was still waiting for the Mines and Energy Ministry to decide whether Direct Access’ license would be renewed when it expires on Wednesday.
Ministry spokesman Dith Tina said Wednesday that a decision had not yet been made, but that a team of experts sent to the estuary on July 20 determined that Direct Access was doing nothing illegal.
“They are dredging based on their license,” he said, adding that accusations that the company was dredging deeper than its contract stipulated were not true.
“You can’t just put a stone on a string and drop it into the river, that is not the way to measure,” he said of Mother Nature’s technique.
“Why believe one group of people and not the word of the experts?” he added.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)