A Cambodian company is moving forward with plans to clear-cut thousands of hectares of forest in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces to make way for a paper pulp plantation, officials and local villagers said Wednesday.
The 315,028-hectare plantation, granted to the land and timber giant Pheapimex in two contiguous concessions, was proposed in 2000, according to copies of the contracts.
But attempts to commence clearing forest in the concession area in Pursat province in 2001 were scrapped in the face of vehement opposition from donor organizations, NGOs and local communities.
Apparently breathing new life into the project and in preparation for planting the pulp-producing acacia and eucalyptus trees, Pheapimex representatives accompanied by forestry officials visited Pursat’s Krakor district and Kompong Chhnang’s Baribor district on Oct 7, officials and locals said.
“It is the government’s plan, because the government already granted the land concession to the company,” said Pursat forestry chief Pin Thanny, who accompanied the Pheapimex representatives.
Pin Thanny said the company would clear the forest, but he did not know when the work would start. That decision, he added, was out of his hands, as the government had already awarded the concession to Pheapimex.
Kuch Veng, a member of a Pursat community forestry group working to preserve Krakor district’s forests said that he had confronted company and government officials during their visit to the area.
“I was told by the company that they will clear 17,000 hectares of forest in the two provinces,” he said by telephone Wednesday.
“If the forest in our region is destroyed, villagers will die, because we will have no food to eat and nothing to sell to raise money,” he added.
Listed numbers for Pheapimex, owned by well-known businesswoman Cheaung Sopheap, were out of service this week and a security guard at Pheapimex headquarters in Phnom Penh told reporters that no staff were in the compound.
The Pheapimex project joins those of the Taiwanese-owned Green Elite Group and Wuzhishan Group LS whose government-backed efforts to create massive pulp-tree plantations on vast swathes of Koh Kong and Mondolkiri provinces have come to light in recent months.
Like the proposals in Koh Kong and Mondolkiri, forestry experts have called the Pheapimex plan a calamity for the forest and the communities they support.
“It will be disastrous both socially as well as economically,” Albert Weinmann, program coordinator for Lutheran World Services, which works with communities in Kompong Chhnang, said Wednesday.
Mike Davis of forestry monitor Global Witness said the Pheapimex project exemplifies many of the problems with the concession system that Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to address. At a forum on land issues Oct 18, Hun Sen said the government would reassess land and forestry concessions to ensure they comply with the law and that they benefit poor Cambodians.
The Pheapimex concessions violate the 2001 Land Law on several counts, Davis said, adding that it was 30 times the legal concession size limit of 10,000 hectares.
Concessions are awarded by the government for up to 70 years to companies for development purposes that benefit the economy and local community. Concessions, however, cannot be granted on so-called state public property that comprises forest and other natural resources, which are protected.
Locals, Global Witness and other environment NGOs claim the Pheapimex concession includes forests.
“If Hun Sen is serious about reforming land concessions, this would be the perfect place to start,” Davis added.
Kith Seng, director of planning at the Ministry of Agriculture, said Wednesday the Pheapimex project was going forward, and that responsibility for assessing its legality was a job for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
Pheapimex’s renewed interest in the concession for paper production coincides with reports that international corporations, including companies with links to the paper-producing giant Asia Pulp & Paper, are looking to invest in Cambodia, Davis noted.
Paper pulp plantations have been widely criticized for environmental devastation in other parts of the world, and the growth of the industry in Cambodia has worried environmentalists.