Despite official protests, about 200 residents of fishing villages in Kampot province gathered Monday to discuss planned coastal developments that they believe are threatening their livelihoods, villagers and officials said.
Authorities in Kampot district’s Boeng Touk commune said Monday that they had tried to stop the unauthorized meeting by concerned locals but denied that they had tried to prevent the villagers from airing their grievances.
Human rights workers and those who attended the meeting said they fear damage to coastal fish spawning grounds and seaweed colonies from a 1,000-hectare seaport with special economic zones and a 200-hectare eco-tourism project, which is planned for Kampot’s coastline.
Ken Da, a participant at the outdoor forum, which was organized by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, claimed that the Vinh Huor Kampot Port Company had begun filling in mangroves and seaweed fields with sand to build the port.
“We won’t protest against any development, but we prefer a development that benefits villagers,” she said, adding that nearly all the 2,000 villagers in both Boeng Touk and Prek Tnort communes depend on fishing for their livelihoods.
Participants also said they wanted local authorities to halt development of the so-called eco-tourism project by the private Keo Chea company.
CCHR investigator Chhim Savuth said Boeng Touk commune authorities had sent police to halt the forum in order to silence the villagers’ complaints.
“We informed them several days before the forum,” Chhim Savuth said.
“They tried to stop the forum because they wanted to silence villagers from voicing their demands.”
Boeng Touk’s CPP commune chief Touch Sadieng said Monday that he had twice sent police officers to halt the public forum but that participants had ignored his order.
“I went to the organizer and told them to stop,” Touch Sadieng said, adding that he was ignored.
“They didn’t ask permission of either commune or district authorities to hold the forum,” he said. “I told them that our local authorities would not be responsible for any unexpected troubles.”
Reached by telephone Monday, Vinh Huor, owner of the new port development, said he was traveling and could not comment.
However, he said Sept 1 that his port had been under construction since last year and was scheduled for completion in 2010.
“A smaller share of the villagers protest because they don’t understand the importance of the development,” he said, adding that the port and factories could one day employ as many as 40,000 people.
(Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy)