Botum Sakor district, Koh Kong province – A Chinese development firm in Koh Kong is clearing swathes of forest to create a relocation site for over a thousand families affected by its massive coastline tourism project that includes plans to build a golf course and airport.
Villagers say the displacement site has no secured water supply and lacks the abundance of mango, cashew and coconut trees they once had surrounding their homes near Koh Kong’s picturesque coastline. They also say the land used for relocation is too high to grow rice and is much smaller than land they previously lived on.
In line with the government’s coastal development strategy, the company behind the project, China’s Union Development Group, plans to build several large urban zones to cater to tourists and businesses that will look out over the Koh Sdech archipelago, which is home to precious coral reefs and a large representation of mangroves.
“I don’t know what to do here,” said Heng Phorn, 59, who lives with her daughter, son-in-law and four grand children at her new home in Ta Noun commune. “In my old village, I could find crabs for selling, but everything is very new here.”
Ms Phorn’s concern was echoed by more than a dozen of other villagers interviewed this week, who said that despite compensation of between $4,000 and $30,000, a lack of amenities such as schools, health centers and basic infrastructure, including sanitation, was making life near unbearable.
Once immersed in a well-established local economy that thrived from trading in fruit, seafood and agricultural products like cashew nuts, rice and mangoes, many villagers must now travel for hours on motorcycles to purchase fuel and food items.
“I am not putting the blame on anyone, but I want to know which leader will be responsible for this situation,” said Sok San, 51, another villager. “We want wells, rice fields for villagers to do business, and we want a proper hospital and school.”
Local officials said that residents in five communes in Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts would be affected by the displacement plans. According to deputy provincial governor Sun Dara, a total of 1,143 families will be relocated and so far about 200 have already taken up their new abode.
The total size of the relocation site stretches 30 km from Thma Sar commune in Botum Sakor district to Koh Sdech commune in neighboring Kiri Sakor district and will cover 12,000 hectares of land, he added.
“Villagers will not live lonely because their village is next to infrastructure projects such as a highway,” he said. “We will dig wells, ponds, and build schools, hospitals and pagodas for them.”
Botum Sakor district governor Orn Phirak said that while locals would suffer from a lack of infrastructure and resources in the short term, they would benefit from the development once tourists started to visit the area.
To overcome the villagers’ loss, he said, a master plan has been devised that includes plans for a school, health center, administrative building and wells for drinking water. Though he declined to elaborate on a time frame for the plans.
He added that the government was working on issuing land titles to villagers later this month.
“In this stage, the people will have to accept a little difficulty and try to do some farming,” he said. “But they will work for this company in the two or three years if everything goes smoothly.”
Prak Chandara, director of the Tourism Ministry’s tourism industry department, said he welcomed the project.
“If this project is successful, it will attract more tourists to our country,” he said. “I believe that this 30,000 hectares of land for development is not only for the purpose of developing tourism, but also other areas such agriculture and infrastructure.”
Several attempts to question the company went unanswered. In an interview with Union Development Group’s general manager Li Jian Hua in August, Mr Li only agreed to meet in a neutral location and refused to be recorded or give reporters access to the company’s master plan.
The human rights group Licadho yesterday slammed the project for its lack of transparency and called for increased levels of public consultation.
“This is not a good development. We don’t support these developments that make the people poor,” said In Kongchit, provincial monitor for Licadho. “The government must give support to the villagers living in the area.”
Stretching back roughly 30 km from Koun Kok village in Kiri Sakor district, bulldozers could be seen clearing trees from forested land to make way for relocated families. The dead remains of tree trunks scatter parched land, creating a graveyard atmosphere.
On baron patches of land that have already been cleared, construction workers assemble rows of identical wooden houses that extend as far as the eye can see. Lines of finished houses lie dormant while others are still in the process of being built.
Approved by the government’s investment board within the Council for the Development of Cambodia in 2008 under an estimated price tag of $3.8 billion construction╤which officials say will include a golf course, airport and several large-scale commercial zones╤is set to take place over the next 25 years.
The project falls directly within the 171,250-hectare Botum Sakor National Park, one of the 34 richest repositories of fauna and flora on the planet, according to the conservation organization Wildlife Alliance.
Environmentalists say that tourism development in areas of natural importance are not automatically negative, as they can generate income for locals who have previously relied on hunting and natural resources from the forest.
“Large tourism projects are not necessarily bad as long as they take into consideration the environment and communities and put those things together in a responsible way,” said Oran Shapira, project manager for Wildlife Alliance’s community-based eco-tourism project in Koh Kong’s Thma Baing district.
Wildlife Alliance’s Country Director Suwanna Gauntlett said building houses for displaced families in deforested areas would only result in a reduced water supply as desertification takes place on land once nourished by trees. She said Union Development Group had provided her organization with no updates on its activities but that Wildlife Alliance had provided them with guidelines for tourism development in the area.
“It’s a total lack of transparency,” she said.
During a visit this week to Union Development Group’s construction site in Kiri Sakor district, dozens of diggers and heavy-duty lorries could be seen cutting through the forest to make a road that skirts the coastline. Workers have also started building a hotel complex and have completed construction on a small container port where goods are being delivered.
A Chinese construction worker, who declined to give his name because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said in Khmer that construction had also begun on an airport.
Another Chinese worker, who said he was a supervisor on the project, declined to provide any details and told a reporter in English to stop taking photographs.
About 30 km inland back at the relocation site in Ta Noun commune, Kim Sokuntheary, 25, was boiling water she took from a small pond in the area. She has two children to feed and has attempted to grow a small vegetable garden in the dry ground next to her home.
“I worry that I won’t have enough water in the dry season,” she said. “I don’t really love this place because it doesn’t have rice fields for me to do farming.”