Efforts to designate a Cambodian wildlife sanctuary, now being explored for millions of tons of minerals, as a UN World Heritage Site have foundered because the government lacks to the necessary political will, according to a report commissioned by the UN Development Program.
The government’s commitment to conserving its protected wilderness areas is also in doubt as officials do not view them as profitable investments, according to the report.
Dated April, the recently obtained internal report is a final evaluation of the UNDP’s five-year, $3.2 million project on the management of officially protected forests and sanctuaries in the Cardamom mountains.
The independent review of the work funded by UNDP found that while the results of the Cardamom mountains’ project had been mixed, its achievements were endangered by the government’s disinterest in environmental conservation.
Last year, the Environment Ministry lifted a 12-year ban on mining in protected areas and opened one of the sanctuaries under the UNDP’s project—the 334,000-hectare Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, which spans Koh Kong, Battambang and Pursat provinces—to exploration for mining.
A mining company has since declared that within its 10,000-hectare concession inside one of the sanctuary’s deciduous forests in Pursat, it has discovered a total of nearly six million tons of chromium and antimony in equal measures, as well as a large amount of copper.
Executives at the firm, Southern Mining Company, could not be reached Monday.
The sanctuary is home to countless rare and endangered species, some found nowhere else, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which was involved in the effort to designate the sanctuary a world heritage site.
The UNDP on Monday said it still believed in the sites’ ecological value but distanced itself from the findings of the report it commissioned.
“UNDP continues to believe the sanctuaries contain important biodiversity and landscape values and within its mandate will continue to seek ways to help protect these values,” UNDP spokesman Men Kimseng wrote in an e-mail.
“The Final Evaluation of the Cardamom Mountains Protected Forest and Wildlife Sanctuaries Project was prepared for UNDP by… independent evaluators. As such all statements and points may not be endorsed by UNDP,” he added.
According to a chronology within the report, Environment Ministry, NGO and UN efforts that started in August 2004 to designate both the Phnom Samkos and Phnom Aural sanctuaries ran aground in July 2005. Phnom Aural covers Kompong Chhnang, Pursat and Koh Kong provinces.
A meeting of the Council of Ministers postponed a decision on adding the sites to a government list of potential designees as heritage sites and Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed opposition to the designation in December that year, it said.
“[G]overnment commitment to [protected areas] is unclear at the moment,” the report found, adding that it is “uncertain whether there is sufficient political will” for the Phnom Samkos and Phnom Aural sanctuary designations.
The report also cited “difficulties in addressing corruption and disregard for the law” is problems endangering the project’s achievements.
“Weak political commitment toward protected areas because they are not perceived as productive and profitable investments by government” also threaten to undo its progress, the report said.
Unnamed ministries have also “lobbied the government…to grant mining and tourism concessions within the wildlife sanctuaries,” the report added.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth could not be reached Monday while Yin Kim Sean, a secretary of state at the ministry, said he was unfamiliar with the Phnom Samkos sanctuary and declined to comment.
His fellow Secretary of State Prach Sun said the sites could not be designated heritage sites until the search for minerals was complete.
“We are waiting for the [Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy] to evaluate whether there are mines or not before the Environment Ministry goes there to check,” he said.
In recent months, officials at the Industry and Environment Ministries have repeatedly said that the government retains the right to allow the extraction of natural resources if it believes this is of greatest benefit to the public.
Hun Sen in March also said that he opposed designating the Tonle Sap river basin as a World Heritage Site as this would hinder extracting oil and mineral resources.
Tim Wong, technical adviser to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, said the Phnom Samkos sanctuary was considered “a ‘global hotspot’ for biodiversity.”
The Phnom Samkos and Phnom Aural sanctuaries are together home to 56 globally endangered species, including the Asian elephant, gaur, the pileated gibbon, the Siamese crocodile, the elongated tortoise, the spiny mountain frog and the Cambodian laughing thrush, Wong wrote in an e-mail.
Some of these species are found nowhere else in Cambodia, others nowhere else in the world, he wrote.
National Assembly President Heng Samrin said that while he is not familiar with Phnom Samkos, he felt mining exploring for minerals won’t harm wildlife.
“Finding only the minerals does not destroy any animals because it is just exploration,” he said.
Kishore Rao, deputy director of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Center in Paris, wrote in an e-mail that global mining firms have recognized that World Heritage Sites are off limits to mining.