Minister of Environment Mok Mareth has defended recent government approvals of a glut of economic land concessions that privatized 1,100 square km of land in 10 environmental conservation areas. The minister said the projects would not affect important conservation zones, but in fact help protect the remaining forestland from illegal logging.
Civil society groups, however, said several of the recent concessions had not spared important conservation areas, but cut deep into dense forests, adding that local villagers’ use of the forest often did not involve logging.
In a letter this week responding to questions on the topic, Mr Mareth reiterated remarks by his officials that the concessions were located in degraded forest areas with little conservation value that were now classified as “sustainable multi-use zone.” He said the projects’ environmental impacts had been properly studied.
Mr Mareth said developing these zones would not only support local economic development, but also serve as a barrier that shielded conservation zones from illegal encroachment and logging by local communities.
“[D]evelopment projects in the sustainable multi-use zone are a mechanism to raise a protection line to prevent forest encroachment inside […] conservation and core zones which are of conservation value,” he wrote.
“[I]t is a mechanism of legal regulation for local villagers living inside and near nature protection zones to reduce poverty and improve effectiveness of managing nature protection.”
The Law on Nature Protection Areas classifies zones within protected areas, according to conservation priorities, into a core zone, a conservation zone, a community zone and a sustainable multi-use zone.
Between Feb 1 and April 1, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed off on 17 concessions granting agro-farming companies the rights to exploit about 1,100 sq km in ten protected areas across the country, including a 500-sq-km special economic zone inside the 3,300-sq-km Virachey National Park in Ratanakkiri province.
These protected areas are among 23 Environment Ministry-administered national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, which cover about 33,000 sq km.
Despite the privatization of huge swathes of protected areas under his administration, Mr Mareth said local villagers-and not land concessions-were a major threat to forests.
“[T]raditionally, besides doing poor agriculture with low yields […] they enter the forest in the nature protection zones to collect forest products or clear forestland to do swidden farming or illegally log trees,” he wrote.
Private investment in protected areas, Mr Mareth claimed, offered local villagers “job opportunities and new technical skills in agriculture” and “changes people’s illegal conduct like felling trees […] through their participation in the work of investment companies.”
David Emmett, regional director of Conservation International, said concessions “have the ability to protect core areas for conservation when they are located around the edge of these core areas.”
“They do, however, need to recognize traditional user rights of local communities to collect non-timber forest products […] such as resin or fuel wood,” he added.
But Mr Emmett pointed out that some of the concessions would not shield the parks, but instead cut deep into conservation areas, such as the 9,137-hectare concession in the center of Koh Kong province’s Botum Sakor National Park, he said.
Some of the concessions “along the east of Virachey [Park] appear to be located within existing forest, and high conservation value forest at that, which immediately creates problems as [concessions] should not be granted in forested areas,” he added.
WWF director Teak Seng said development in protected areas should only occur after parks have a zoning plan and a project’s impact is thoroughly researched. “Any development […] if it is not planned properly will have detrimental impacts on the integrity of protected areas,” he said.
Cambodia’s protected areas, however, often lack an approved zoning plan before private concessions are allocated.
Sao Vansey, director of the Indigenous Community Support Organization, denied the Environment Minister’s claim that hill tribes practiced illegal logging. “Traditionally they access forests anywhere for hunting and non-timber forest products, but they don’t cut trees,” he said.
Mr Vansey said although investment projects offered “some benefits” in terms of employment, the subsequent uprooting of traditional livelihoods had “a lot of social impact” in indigenous minority communities.
NGO Forum said it was concerned over the spike in development in protected areas, as it could impact local communities’ livelihoods and undermined Cambodia’s potential access to carbon credits-the international climate change funds for forest protection that are becoming increasingly available.
“[I]n the past we learned that it is very much likely that those new concessions will affect villagers, in particularly the indigenous people who depend on” forests, NGO Forum director Chhit Sam Ath said.
Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri coordinator for human rights group Adhoc, said he feared that the government’s development narrative was merely a ruse to log the remaining valuable timber in the concession areas.
“Granting economic land concessions inside protected areas will destroy forest because most concessionaires are targeting timber for business,” he said.
Mom Hay, a 25-year-old villager in Kratie province’s Pi Thnou commune, said a 5,000-hectare rubber concession in Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary, granted to Sovann Vuthy Company on March 21, had first cleared local forests and now threatened to rob 200 indigenous Stieng and Banong families from their farmland.
This type of development, he said, was a curse for local communities rather than a boon. “How do our livelihoods improve when the company moves in and bulldozes our farmlands?” Mr Hay asked.