Fighting off criticism over plans to develop inside the country’s protected areas, Environment Minister Mok Mareth said such projects will be incorporated into long-term plans for the nation’s parks and carefully scrutinized for their potential threats to the environment.
In an interview Wednesday, Mok Mareth said he had not granted final approval to any of the developments that have come to light in recent months, including a resort and golf course in Kompong Speu province and an acacia plantation in Koh Kong province. He said that none will proceed without the developers first submitting a thorough Environmental and Social Impact Assessment.
That assessment, required by law, will then be subject to an extensive review by ministry technicians and NGOs, donors, villagers and scientists.
“If we found potential areas for tourism, we must take the opportunity,” Mok Mareth said through a translator.
“But what is it based on? That is the environmental and social impact assessment.”
Development is legal in protected areas but must adhere to a zone system, as outlined in a draft law still in preparation. The zones range from a core zone, where no development will be permitted, to a sustainable use zone, which would allow ecotourism and other basic development projects.
A controversial acacia plantation within Botum Sakor National Park is among the first projects to test the ESIA system, which has so far not been implemented for large-scale projects, he said.
Indicating his own reservations about the project, Mok Mareth said his ministry will review an ESIA by the Taiwanese company Green Rich before granting permission to develop a planned plantation to harvest timber for Chinese paper mills.
“Our principle, and we will take this stand, is that if the forest area is still in good condition, and by good condition I mean that it is full of forest, then we will not allow any cutting or clearing,” Mok Mareth said.
Green Rich began cutting trees inside the park earlier this year, prompting an Environment Ministry order that the company suspend its operations until it completes an ESIA. The company has not submitted its report.
The company, which has admitted ties to the Indonesian forestry group PT Arara Abadi, is lobbying for at least 300,000 hectares in the southwest for its plantations.
The minister said a final decision on Green Rich will be based on that report. However, he pointed out several difficulties facing such a proposal, along with his own opposition to monoculture plantations, the planting of eucalyptus and expanding into land where forest was already growing.
The initial Green Rich concession, in 1998, was endorsed because it would reforest area that was heavily logged in the 1990s, the minister said. But in much of the park where Green Rich plans to plant acacia, “it seems forest has regenerated,” Mok Mareth said.
The ministry will fine Green Rich for the cutting it has already completed, he said.
The minister expressed similar reservations about a plan to build a golf course, resort and theme park within Kompong Speu’s Oral Wildlife Sanctuary. Among the possible problems he cited are the lack of adequate water and potential effects on indigenous Suy minorities. The Suy people consider as sacred the hot springs, which, according to the company’s master plan, would be drowned in an artificial lake.
“It will very much depend on the environmental impact assessment,” he said.
Worries raised when company officials marked off the land and began drilling without officially notifying local communities were unfounded, he added.
“The activity that they have taken so far about well digging is because they just want to take the water sample, so I don’t think that it causes negativity to the environment,” he said, emphasizing that the project will not proceed if the ESIA describes negative impacts.
However, the environmental and social impact assessment and review process is still untried as a tool to eliminate ecologically unsound development.
And the process so far has suffered from a lack of resources and limited support both within the government and from donors, according to a 2003 Ministry of Environment report on protected areas prepared by the government and outside experts.
The report noted that even donors have failed to uphold international standards for environmental impact assessments, citing as an example an Asian Development Bank road project that never submitted any environmental impact assessment documents.
A Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy dam project within Kampot’s Bokor National Park may be another example of the limitations of ESIA regulations.
While Mok Mareth said he is personally supports the dam, he said the ministry has not received the environmental and social impact assessment for the project, which environmentalists oppose.
Bun Narith, director of the Hydroelectricty Department at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said the environmental impact assessment was completed more than two years ago. He has repeatedly declined to release the document to the public, though it is required by law, and said such publication would only be possible once the dam is built.