With heavy machinery on the way, no public consultation, review
chi kreng district, Siem Reap province – Tucked away at the end of a dirt road here, armed soldiers lounge by a barrier that leads to a copper mine.
Beyond the threshold, the road continues through sparse forest. Another few hundred meters further and mounds of earth as big as football fields can be seen through the trees on top of excavated land.
Despite the government’s public commitment to good governance and transparency in mining, this operation located about 70 km from Siem Reap City is little known to local villagers, who remain unsure about what having a mine in the area could mean for them.
A company representative said yesterday that extraction would commence in the area next month.
“Villagers were not contacted or informed clearly about this mineral company,” said Bun Chan Liep, a 54-year-old woman living in nearby Khvav village. “We do not know yet whether we will benefit from this company or not.”
Villagers living close to the mining site say they heard nothing about the company’s activities until machinery started to arrive here toward the end of last year.
Some say they are worried that the company could affect cattle grazing pastures and that runoff could pollute streams. Others want the company to inform them about what they stand to gain.
By law, the Environment Ministry is required to encourage “public participation” in conservation and natural resource management.
But observers say the mine is just one example of many such operations in Cambodia that go about business under a blanket of secrecy.
It is also an operation with close ties to the Cambodian armed forces, whose expanded relations with Cambodian companies have caused human rights workers and foreign lawmakers to question the armed forces’ professionalism.
Officials and government documents say Chinese investors and RCAF Major General Nim Meng are behind the mine.
An Oct 27 agreement signed by Suy Sem, minister of Industry, Mines and Energy, and Nim Meng Group’s director Lay Sineang, appears to hold both sides to the terms of the mining law in that they “keep all relevant data concerning the exploration, feasibility study and the mining operations confidential.”
Officials at the Ministry of Environment did not respond to questions regarding the firm’s completion of an environmental-impact assessment.
Unsigned license documents that carry the name of Minister Suy Sem say Nim Meng Group has been granted a total of 80 square km for both extraction and exploration.
Thirty-six square km have been set aside for extraction and 44 square km for exploration purposes. The duration of the exploration license is set at six years, whereas mining operations can last up top 30 years from the end of the exploration period, according to the license.
Suy Sem could not be reached but Meng Vuthy, the assistant to the company’s director Ms Sineang—who is reportedly also the wife of Maj Gen Meng—said the company had already been granted both an exploration and extraction permits by the government.
“The machines and other equipment will arrive next month for extraction,” he said, adding that the firm also had plans to build a refinery on the site.
Mr Vuthy said the company would construct new roads and build dykes to help restore a lake.
News of the mine first came about in November when Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh told investors from around the region at a business luncheon that the government had plans of giving a copper company a mining license in Siem Reap province.
But despite numerous calls to government officials regarding the mine, nothing more has been said.
The existence of a patronage system between Cambodia’s military and private business is well documented. In February last year when Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a new government initiative that creates formal patronage relationships between military units and private companies, such patronage became official policy.
“The close relationship between investors in Cambodia’s mining sector and Cambodian military personnel doesn’t bode well for ensuring transparent, accountable or sustainable development,” George Boden, a campaigner for the environmental group Global Witness, wrote in an e-mail.
According to Global Witness, Preah Vihear province is also home to a stone mine believed to be owned by General Pol Saroeun, RCAF commander-in-chief.
Global Witness says the firm is a joint venture formed in 2005 with Pheaphimex—a Cambodian company currently embroiled in land disputes with villagers in Pursat province—and China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation.
“Such close relationships are facilitated by the utter lack of transparency or accountability in the way in which rights to develop Cambodia’s mineral resources are allocated,” Mr Boden said. “Global Witness is very concerned about the involvement of the RCAF in mining operations and militarization of the country’s emerging mining sector.”
On a visit to Nim Meng Group’s mining site last week, reporters were confronted by soldiers armed with machine guns who immediately escorted them off the premises.
When asked about the links between RCAF and business, Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said that although civil servants were not allowed to own businesses, family members were.
He said he was unaware of Nim Meng Group, or the existence of a mine linked to the military in Siem Reap province.
“I have never heard of the firm Nim Meng Group,” he said. “But I do know of the name Nim Meng.”
Khlauk Sina, director of Siem Reap’s provincial department of industry, mines and energy, confirmed that Nim Meng Group had received an exploration license from the ministry but said he was unaware if the company had submitted an environmental-impact assessment or attained an extraction license.
“The company has done some drilling into the ground for its feasibility research and exploration,” he said.
Mr Sina added that there were a total of six companies in Siem Reap province that have been granted licenses for exploration of mineral resources.
Chrea Mony, chief of administration in Chi Kreng district, also confirmed the presence of Nim Meng Group and said the mine would have no adverse effect on people’s land.
He said a few people had complained that the company was infringing on their farmland, but that investigations had proved that the land in question consisted of degraded forest not subject to any private claims.
“This copper firm will bring many jobs for local villagers in Khvav commune and other surrounding communes,” he said.
But for Kuy Hort, chief of Khvav commune, hopes that the company will benefit the local community are not so assured.
“Since the company arrived here, they have never cooperated with the commune authority,” he said, adding that he was aware of complaints from at least six families, who claim their land is being affected by the company’s activities.
Mr Hort said the police had informed him recently that the company had plans to install an irrigation system for rice fields and pave roads in the commune.
“If they only say it but do not do it, it will not benefit the local community much,” he said.