o’yadaw district, Ratanakkiri province – More than one year after discussions began to introduce commercial big game hunting to this largely unspoiled corner of Cambodia, it appears that one important group has been left in the dark: the thousands of indigenous people living in the future preserve.
Residents of two communes located within the proposed 100,000-hectare hunting preserve, approved by the Council of Ministers late last month, said this week they have heard nothing about it, even after officials in Phnom Penh and Ratanakkiri debated the benefits and hardships the resort would bring to their communities.
The hunting area “will not bring any profit to the villagers,” 51-year-old Seav Nhut, a resident of Phok Nhai commune’s Lom village, predicted Monday when told of Spanish company NSOK’s plan to begin working on the resort for high-end foreign hunters next year.
“Most of the companies just tear down the forest and bring difficulties for the villagers,” he said.
Many of the ethnic minority villagers in O’Yadaw district’s Phok Nhai and Yatung communes, which still practice traditional rotational farming methods in the surrounding forests, shared Seav Nhut’s skepticism. They say private companies have neglected local villagers for years, exploiting the region’s natural resources with little regard for the effects on their traditional culture and livelihoods.
“The benefits again will go to the rich,” said Sek Kheang, a 44-year-old resident of Lom village, a community of about 140 mostly ethnic Jarai families. He said on Monday that he had heard nothing of the hunting preserve plans but was confident that villagers would not stand for it if the proposal comes to fruition.
“We will protest if they build on our village or in the forest,” he said. “Our next generation will not have any wild animals to hunt, and our children will not know about those kinds of wild animals.”
“The villagers will be left with only wild vegetables to eat; we won’t get jobs from the hunting [either],” he added.
While much of the debate surrounding the preserve has focused on the ethics of hunting rare species of animals in the area—including the Indian Bison, also known as gaur—Ratanakkiri provincial authorities have decried the plan because, they say, the company has displayed little regard for the local population.
“For me, I am concerned about negative impacts, such as damaging the sustainable usage of wild animals,” Deputy Provincial Governor Chey Sayoeun said by telephone Tuesday, echoing concerns he raised in January when the Ministry of Agriculture recommended approving the preserve to the Council of Ministers.
“When the hunting starts, villagers will not be allowed to hunt or get byproducts from the forest, and it will hurt their rotational farming sites, most of which are in that area,” he said.
Chey Sayoeun said he became concerned for the villagers’ well-being in part because of conversations he has had with commune councilors in the O’Yadaw area. He has said in the past that public opinion was against the hunting preserve because of the environmental and social harm it would cause.
For Pen Bonnar, the provincial coordinator of local rights group Adhoc, the reserve plan might be a good one as it could prevent deforestation in the preservation area and lead to more local jobs. Currently, deforestation and illegal hunting of all sorts of wild animals is rife in Ratanakkiri, Pen Bonnar explained recently.
“I believe that the company’s investment is good because it will protect the forest and create more jobs for the local villagers and provide more education as the company works to educate people about laws regarding legal and illegal hunting,” he said Tuesday.
But Chey Sayoeun dismissed the job claims, saying villagers were not qualified to fill the types of roles that will be made available by the resort.
“The local labor absorbed [by the preserve] will be very limited because the villagers have little to no experience working in tourism,” he said. “Villagers will participate only very slightly.”
Villagers echoed those fears.
Rachom Hoeuk, who lives in Yatung commune’s Tean village and is a clerk for the Yatung commune chief, said he had heard nothing of the plans, but saw no way for villagers to avoid any ill effects. He said many villagers still hunt in Ratanakkiri’s forests, using primitive weapons to search for food.
“If there is [a hunting preserve], of course there will be effects on the villagers,” such as loss of animals to hunt, he said.
Dany Chheang, deputy director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry Administration, said the game preserve sub-decree approved by the Council of Ministers on Feb 27 had not yet been signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen because the government wanted time to observe what he called a “pilot project.”
He also said the government was paying close attention to the project because it will consider allowing additional game hunting zones if this one is a success. He said the government would oversee the preserve, and that NSOK would act only as the operator.
“We are just doing a basic information study,” he said, adding that the sub-decree will likely be signed within the next two months. “This is the pilot project, so we need to observe the process.”
Uk Phourik, the Cambodian attorney representing NSOK, said the villagers were in no danger of losing their land, and that the company was planning measures to ensure that the preserve has a positive impact on local communities.
He said the company would pay to build a referral hospital, schools and about 100 km of road in O’Yadaw district and provide interest-free loans to local communities adapting to the preserve. Uk Phourik also claimed that the company had about $1 million to pay 90 people to work as tour guides and protectors against illegal hunting.
“We will provide jobs and encourage people to quit hunting and be tour guides,” he said, adding that interest-free loans would be provided to help the villagers begin focusing more on agriculture. He said business brought in from tourists coming to hunt would be another positive benefit.
“I think this is good for both local villagers and the national interest,” he said.
But Tean village resident Seav Oek, 62, said villagers can’t decide if it’s in their interests, as nobody is discussing the plans with them.
“If the government has approved the hunting preserve in the area, we…have no choice but to follow the government’s orders,” he said. “But I’m afraid our next generation won’t know some of these wild animals.”