The government has continued this year’s wholesale privatization of environmental conservation areas, according to official records which show that another 500 square km of protected areas have been granted to agribusiness companies and that three more conservation areas will lose forest to industry.
Since January, the surge in economic land concessions allocated in protected areas now amounts to the privatization of 1,877 square km.
Previously obtained records showed that 1,370 square km were conceded to agribusinesses between February and May. However, according to sub-decrees seen this month, between Jan 12 and May 30, Prime Minister Hun Sen also approved concessions totaling 50,750 hectares in the form of nine concessions granted inside conservation areas.
The Environment Ministry, which administers the areas, again maintained this week that recent concessions only affected degraded tracts of forest—a claim that has been strongly disputed by conservation organizations.
Concessions in newly affected wildlife sanctuaries include a 1,950-hectare plantation in Pursat province, within Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary; a 4,095-hectare concession in the Roniem Daun Sam Multiple Use Area in Battambang province; and a 500-hectare plantation in Phnom Nam Lyr Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondolkiri province.
Two concessions covering about 17,000 hectares were allocated in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondolkiri province, while two concessions totaling almost 20,000 hectares were granted in Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary in Ratanakkiri province.
Riththy Kiri Sakor Co, owned by CPP Senator Mong Reththy, received a 1,400-hectare concession in Kompong Speu province’s Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, while in Kampot province a 6,718-hectare concession was awarded in Bokor National Park.
Thuk Kroeun Vutha, secretary of state at the Ministry of Environment, said that prior to approval, environmental impact studies had been carried out for the industrial-farm concessions in order to ensure they would affect areas with little conservation value.
“The concessions are granted in the sustainable multi-use zones after thorough studies have been conducted,” Mr Kroeun Vutha said Tuesday, before referring further questions to Minister Mok Mareth.
Last month, Mr Mareth defended the government’s bonanza of concession approvals in conservation areas by arguing that only degraded forest areas in parks and sanctuaries would be affected.
He said plantations would be allocated in so-called sustainable multi-use zones, which would in fact shield priority conservation zones in the parks from illegal logging by local communities, who he said were the major threat to forests.
Nonetheless, his ministry since January has now approved the conversion of 1,877 square km in 13 protected areas into plantations, which amounts to 5.7 percent of the 23 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that it administers.
Conservationists have contested the government’s arguments and said that concessions will cut tens of thousands of hectares of primary forest, if not more, in three protected areas.
Some called on the government to approve and enforce zoning plans for parks that would restrict the allocation of concessions.
Human rights groups also warned that villagers living near protected areas are likely to suffer from concessions that overlap with their farms, or will result in the loss of forest products.
Chhith Sam Ath, director of NGO Forum, said that “the big number” of concessions recently granted in conservation areas was worrisome.
“It’s a serious concern. Action need to be taken urgently by the government and relevant authorities to stop this,” he said.
“If [concessions] are in protected areas it will affect animals, species and indigenous people. Also, it will affect climate change,” said Mr Sam Ath, adding that the surge in concessions would reduce opportunities to gain international climate change funding for forest protection.
Ouch Leng, land program officer with rights group Adhoc, said the latest concessions meant more forest resources would be lost for future generations.
“Cambodia will destroy itself for a little profit,” he said.
Mr Leng also feared that concessionaries were actually after the valuable timber remaining in protected areas. “The private companies cut the trees from the forest and they don’t develop the [concession]. That is my experience,” he said. “They want the wood.”
Mr Reththy said yesterday that his 1,400-hectare concession in Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary in Kompong Speu province’s Omlaing and Trapaing communes would not affect any pristine forest as he had personally inspected the area.
“As you know, no big trees are left there,” he said, adding that his concession would not affect any villager farmland either.
Heng Samnang, deputy Mondolkiri provincial governor, hailed the two concessions allocated in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in May as a boost to the local economy. He said that any forest lost to concessions was degraded, as otherwise the government would not have allowed companies to develop these areas.
“If we leave these pieces of land undeveloped it will be useless,” Mr Samnang said, adding that if companies followed government rules they would also not affect local farms.
However, Em Sopheak, Mondolkiri coordinator for the Community Legal Education Center, said an increase in concessions in the province would certainly raise tensions with villagers if no impact studies were conducted.
“I have seen concessions having impact on villagers’ farmland and resin trees,” she said, adding that indigenous minority communities were still reliant on forest products.
Khan Channy, representative of a Banong village in Pech Chreada district’s Bosra commune, said news of the concessions in the nearby sanctuary had raised fears among villagers. “I think forest there will disappear if a concession is granted there,” he said.