Minister Helps Open Controversial Tycoon’s New Rubber Farm

Environment Minister Say Sam Al was in Preah Vihear province on Sunday to help inaugurate Try Pheap’s newest project, a $52-million rubber plantation and additional facilities that the timber magnate has cleared thousands of hectares of protected forest to build.

Mr. Pheap was granted the 10,000-hectare concession inside the Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary in 2011, and has clear-cut most of the site since.

Timber magnate Try Pheap cuts a ribbon at the inauguration of his rubber plantation in Preah Vihear province on Sunday. (Deum Ampil News)
Timber magnate Try Pheap cuts a ribbon at the inauguration of his rubber plantation in Preah Vihear province on Sunday. (Deum Ampil News)

“The company has been developing [the site] quickly and we hope it will provide a lot of jobs to the people in the community,” deputy provincial governor Sou Serey, who joined the minister and Mr. Pheap for the inauguration, said afterward.

Mr. Pheap has two other concessions near the Thai border in Pursat province and recently handed two others in Ratanakkiri province back to the government.

Though all of his concessions were officially granted for growing rubber, he is best known as Cambodia’s premier timber trader. Numerous reports and investigations have placed Mr. Pheap at the heart of a vast illegal logging operation that involves collusion with government officials and is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, allegations that both he and the government deny.

Sei La, who heads Mr. Pheap’s business operations in Preah Vihear, said the $52-million project inside the Beng Per sanctuary would involve not only rubber and—to a lesser extent—pepper plantations, but also a slew of infrastructure projects for Rovieng district’s Romany commune.

In addition to a gas station, market and waystation for tourists along the paved road that runs past the plantation, he said, “The company plans to build a referral health center, school and pagoda for the people of O’Por village because the area doesn’t have these things.”

Mr. La said there were also plans for a rubber-processing factory, to be completed by the time the first rubber trees are ready to harvest in 2017.

He said 3,000 people had already been put to work at the site, a third of them full-time.

The government has sold the public on concessions like Mr. Pheap’s as a get-rich-quick plan for poor communities in rural areas, with the promise of well-paid jobs at their doorstep.

But the government has never backed up the claim with evidence, and the few independent studies on the impacts of private concessions suggest the opposite—that local communities are made worse off after losing access to their communal farms and forests, while the plantation jobs—back-breaking, poorly paid and irregular—go mostly to outsiders.

Huon Keano, a representative of the ethnic Kuy community that has lived in the area for generations, said Sunday that Mr. Pheap’s plantation in Preah Vihear has been no different.

“The villagers were not happy about the inauguration ceremony because the company has encroached on their land and cleared the forest, which has caused people to lose their jobs because they depend on forest products,” he said.

Mr. Keano said the plantation has encroached on parts of a 2,351-hectare area that former Environment Minister Mok Mareth granted the villagers in stages in 2010 and 2011, and that the government never consulted them on the project before it was approved, as the law requires.

Locals also accuse the plantation of having looted most of the valuable trees in the forests just outside its borders since being developed in 2011, including the protected resin trees they once harvested for a living.

Mr. La denied the allegations.

“On the contrary, those villagers always try to occupy land that the company received as an economic land concession from the government,” he said, adding that he believed the government had already studied the plantation’s potential impacts.

Mr. Serey, the deputy provincial governor, said the communities around the plantation had been consulted about the project, but that he could not produce the records.

“We have the documents, but we cannot find them,” he said. “It was a long time ago.”

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