Environmentalists claim villagers coerced into signing
Environmentalists in Koh Kong province claimed yesterday that a mining company in the area is coercing villagers to sign a petition in favor of a massive titanium mine that risks devastating the local economy and environment.
Oran Shapira, project manager for Wildlife Alliance’s community-based ecotourism program, said that in some cases children had been asked to put their thumbprints to the petition and local authorities were requesting thumbprints in the name of the company, United Khmer Group.
“What we’ve heard from villagers is that local authorities in the name of the company go round collecting thumbprints,” he said. “Some villagers said they were not told what they were signing. They only found out later.”
United Khmer Group is hoping to gain government support to develop a titanium mine covering 20,000 hectares of dense forest in Thma Baing district.
Chiphat village chief Nget Ngon yesterday denied Wildlife Alliance’s claims, saying that the petition had received more than 200 thumbprints from people living in three villages hoping to find jobs with United Khmer Group.
“They [the villagers] said the mine will give them jobs, so they decided to support it,” he said.
Mr Ngon said that he had received the petition from Thma Baing deputy district governor Keo Mi Bora on Dec 14 and that he had personally explained to villagers what they were signing before they gave their signature.
“We made sure that they knew the company was asking for their thumbprints in support of the mine,” he said. “The important thing is that it is up to them. I did not force them to sign.”
Toan Vuthy, 47, a resident of Chiphat village, said he had willingly given his thumbprint to the company.
“I want the company to create jobs for people,” he said. “We want the company to build bridges and roads for people.”
The proposed mine has gained attention recently from the government as its exploration zone falls in the middle of a thriving ecotourism community run by Wildlife Alliance, and risks devastating the habitat of more than one-quarter of the remaining wild elephants left in Cambodia.
In November, a delegation of government officials, which included Environment Minister Mok Mareth and Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun, visited the Chiphat community and promised locals that the government would only press ahead with the mine if its economic benefits will exceed those of the ecotourism community and the area’s natural resources.
But last month, an official from the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy represented the company during a meeting with the government, raising fears over a conflict of interest.
Environmentalists say the company has yet to show any reliable data that the area contains large amounts of titanium.