The Ministry of Environment is preparing to lodge a court complaint against a paper plantation company that allegedly ignored a government order to cease cutting forest in Koh Kong province’s Botum Sakor National Park, a ministry official said.
Last year, Green Rich Co Ltd broke ground on a controversial 18,000-hectare eucalyptus and acacia plantation in the national park that was obtained through a government land concession deal in 1998.
The project has provoked outcry from environmentalists who have noted that under Cambodian law, industrial developments are forbidden inside protected areas.
Operations were ordered suspended in May pending a review by the Ministry of Environment of an environmental impact assessment to be prepared by Green Rich.
However, environmentalists accused Green Rich of ignoring the order.
“We want the company [Green Rich] to be responsible for the damage that they have caused,” said Lonh Heal, technical director general of the Ministry of Environment, who is heading the investigation. “Next week I will file the complaint,” he said Monday.
Lonh Heal said the ministry will file the complaints because Green Rich continued work though its impact assessment had not yet been approved.
The Green Rich assessment was submitted to the ministry in August, according to Chay Samith, the ministry’s department of natural preservation director.
“It is very important that the ministry review the plan first before allowing the company to operate,” Lonh Heal said.
Once the complaint is ready, it will be forwarded to the Koh Kong provincial court, under whose jurisdiction the Green Rich plantation falls.
Koh Kong provincial environment department Director Sao Sithourn said he did not know why the Ministry of Environment was filing a complaint as Green Rich had stopped its operations, though guards were still protecting the company’s site.
Besides that, Sao Sithourn was reluctant to say more.
“I have to wait until the prosecutor charges the company first before I can comment, otherwise I am afraid that the company will file a counter-lawsuit,” he said last week.
Chu Sinphong, managing director of Heng Brothers Co Ltd, a trading and investment firm that works with the Green Rich company—which shares and offices with the Green Elite company, said on behalf of Green Rich last week that company Director Paul Yu was on holiday and could not be reached for comment.
Global Witness and WildAid, the NGO that co-manages Botum Sakor with the government, have accused Green Rich of ignoring the ministry’s order and continuing its work in the park.
“The Ministry has suspended activities in writing, ordering Green Rich to issue an [environment impact assessment]…. But they have continued clearing,” Delphine Vann Roe of WildAid said last month.
A recent trip to the site by Global Witness found that a chipping mill had been erected and forest has continued to be cleared. The chips are loaded onto boats docked at the site and transported by water.
The Ministry of Environment’s plans to lodge a complaint has also brought global timber giant Asia Pulp & Paper into the picture amid allegations by Global Witness that the Green Elite company is a front company for APP.
In a letter to Environment Minister Mok Mareth on Dec 22, Mike Davis of Global Witness branded the activities of APP and Green Elite—which he claimed was a more recent incarnation of Green Rich—in Botum Sakor as “blatant illegality.”
“As a first step, the Ministry should initiate a prosecution of APP/Green Elite and any [ministry] staff complicit in its illegal activities, however senior they may be,” Davis wrote.
An APP spokesman acknowledged on Sunday that his company and the Green Rich/Green Elite companies are “related to APP through common shareholders.”
But Arian Ardie, APP’s director of sustainability and stakeholder engagement, maintained APP does not control them entirely.
“APP does not own Green Rich or Green Elite directly,” he said.
Green Rich and Green Elite staff in September claimed links to PT Arara Abadi, which feeds APP’s paper mills. Both companies are controlled by the Sinar Mas Group, one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates with a network of paper mills and land holdings that extends into China and India.
Ardie said APP is concerned about the possibility of the ministry lawsuit and would be investigating the allegations.
While APP has been in Cambodia for the past year setting up operations, the company has not started clearing forest or developing a plantation, Ardie said in e-mail correspondence last month.
“We do not currently have active operations in Cambodia in terms of logging or plantation development,” he wrote.
However, an APP team would be traveling to Phnom Penh in the next few weeks to conduct an assessment of wood sources available in Cambodia and determine whether a development of a plantation would be possible.
“To the extent that the government of Cambodia wants to develop its forestry industry, we see that it has potential,” Ardie wrote.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)