The Environment Ministry announced Tuesday it had canceled 26 economic land concessions (ELCs) covering 117,000 hectares last year, including two held by timber magnate Try Pheap in Ratanakkiri province’s Virachey National Park.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Environment Minister Say Sam Al said the government had canceled 23 of the concessions, while three more, including Mr. Pheap’s, were returned voluntarily. He said the government also cut 10,000 hectares out of two other ELCs and put four more on notice that they, too, could lose their concessions if they continued to violate the terms of their contracts with the state.
It is the latest in a series of cancellations following a 2012 order from Prime Minister Hun Sen that the environment and agriculture ministries review all their ELCs and cancel the contracts of any offenders.
After Tuesday’s event, Mr. Sam Al’s cabinet chief, Srun Darith, said the government canceled the 23 concessions for three main reasons.
“First, the company was not following legal procedures. For example, before development they need to do an [environmental impact assessment] and a master plan,” he said.
“Second, there was no resolution with affected villagers. And third, the company did not have the ability to develop the land.”
The ELCs handed back to the ministry voluntarily included a 9,700-hectare concession leased to Try Pheap Import Export and a 9,100-hectare concession leased to MDS Thmodar SEZ, part of Mr. Pheap’s MDS Group.
Mr. Darith said the businessman gave up the concessions, both of which sit inside Virachey Park, next to the Vietnamese border, because the land was not good for farming.
Rights groups accuse Mr. Pheap of running a vast illegal logging operation across the country with the government’s tacit consent. When reporters visited Virachey Park in December 2013, illegal loggers who claimed to be working for Mr. Pheap were seen manning a well-organized operation there, stripping the protected area of its most valuable timber.
Mr. Pheap has official deals with the government both to buy up all the trees cut down by ELC owners in Ratanakkiri as well as any illegally logged wood confiscated by the state anywhere in the country, but his business representatives deny that his companies do any illegal logging themselves.
Mr. Darith said that neither of the two concessions Mr. Pheap handed back had been logged. Human rights groups Adhoc and Licadho said they could not verify the claim because the area was very remote.
Representatives of Mr. Pheap could not be reached for comment.