Tree plantations on large economic land concessions offer little benefit to the rural poor and if they are allowed to develop, the plantations will do widespread environmental and social damage, according to a new report soon to be published by the NGO Forum.
The study draws its conclusions from investigations of four large plantations of fast-growing, or “fast wood,” trees, Green Rich, Pheapimex, Wuzhishan and Cambodia Haining, which are in the initial stages of development.
Each of the four concessions exceeds the 10,000-hectare legal concession limit and are often situated with “complete disregard” for protected areas, the report said.
Plantation operators have failed to obey government orders, to observe legal procedures or to consult with local residents, upon whom they have in most cases visited violence or at least intimidation, the report found.
The plantations rarely employ locals, destroy “large swathes” of forest, create pollution, and reduce wildlife; all of which seriously affects the livelihoods of the people whose homes they abut or surround.
Three of the concessions studied, Green Rich’s 18,000-hectare acacia and palm oil plantation in Koh Kong province, Cambodia Haining’s 21,000-hectare cassava and palm-oil plantation in Kompong Speu province, the 316,000-hectare eucalyptus plantation that is owned by Pheapimex Co and that stretches between Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces, are all currently inactive due either to local resistance or government regulation.
That they could return to life remains a distinct possibility, the report finds, and the fourth, Mondolkiri province’s Wuzhishan pine tree plantation, which is of unknown size but could grow to 200,000 hectares, remains active.
None of the four companies could be contacted this week.
The Pheapimex plantation is “vast even by global standards,” according to the NGO Forum report, and is home to an estimated population of 100,000 people.
In November 2004, people protesting the loss of land were attacked with a grenade, which wounded eight. Police made no arrests in the case.
Only one of 77 households interviewed for the report claimed to have found work on the plantation and 88 percent were unhappy that it had been created. Six people interviewed in two communes said pollution from the plantation had turned rivers black.
The company’s activities were suspended in January 2005 due to “resistance by local communities.” However, NGO Forum doubts that this will last.
“High-level support for the concession means that is likely that operations will recommence in the future,” the authors stated.
The Green Rich Company’s plantation “is almost wholly located inside Botum Sakor National Park,” which is illegal, according to NGO Forum, adding that large forested areas will be destroyed if operations are allowed to continue.
The peeling bark of melaleuca trees on the plantation had released poison into the local water supply.
The company continued logging despite an Environment Ministry order to stop, the report says, and plantation laborers “were found to be held under conditions of indentured labor” and had to be rescued by police and NGOs in 2004.
Green Rich submitted an environmental impact assessment, as required by law, only after operations had begun and was sued by the environment ministry in January 2005 for allegedly destroying the forest. The outcome is still pending.
“The purpose of the report is…to find the positive impacts or negative impacts to local communities or environments,” said Hak Sokleap, one of the principal authors.
Cambodia’s concessions are in the early stages of development and the report hopes to influence policy debate before development proceeds any further, he said.
But Government and provincial officials say the concessions provide more benefits than environmentalists are willing to admit.
Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun said Monday that he could not comment on the report but denied that plantations have escaped government regulation.
“If a concessionaire violates its contract or does something wrong, we have all kinds of measures to stop it,” he said.
Chan Sarun denied that concessions require clearing significant areas of forest or that they affect the lives of local residents. He also claimed that some who say they have lost land to the concessions have in fact never owned it.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth said in an interview Monday that his ministry does not play an active role in regulating concessions and depended the agriculture ministry, which he said may not in all cases have provided the required information to his ministry.
Mok Mareth said he was satisfied with the current state of regulation and doubted that many concessions exceeded legal limits.
“I need cooperation from the Ministry of Agriculture,” he said. “I cannot fly to check everywhere…. When the Ministry of Agriculture authorizes the investor to plant the tree [they] must inform the Ministry of Environment.”
Forest Administration Director Ty Sokun said Wednesday that the Agriculture Ministry had been more than cooperative.
“We are wide open. Whatever information his excellency wants, we offer him,” he said of Mok Mareth. “And not just the ministry, everyone.”