The Koh Kong provincial government shut down a yellow vine processing facility under construction in Thma Baing district over the weekend, following a request from the Ministry of Environment on Thursday, officials confirmed on Sunday.
Mon Phalla, director of the provincial environment department, said provincial governor Bun Leut had ordered district authorities and the company building the factory in Russei Chrum commune to cease operations.
“Our provincial and district authorities already shut it down,” Mr. Phalla said on Sunday of the facilities being built by Chinese company Jiyian Huanglian Trading. “We did not close it temporarily. We closed it forever.”
In a letter to Environment Minister Say Sam Al earlier this month, environmental NGOs said the processing of the indigenous plant would pollute surface and underground water with the large quantities of sulfuric acid used in the manufacture of yellow vine powder, potentially destroying the “best intact forest in the Southern and Central Cardamom National Parks.”
The groups, Wildlife Alliance and Conservation International, requested the ministry’s intervention to shut down two suspected operations in Koh Kong, the Jiyian Huanglian facility and another project planned by the Chhay Ching Heang Group.
Yellow vine can be used to manufacture cosmetics and traditional medicine. It has also been rumored to be used as an ingredient in ecstasy, although some experts and officials have said that is untrue.
Sie Ra, deputy director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry Administration, on Sunday defended the ministry’s decision last month to grant permission to collect yellow vine in Thma Baing to Chhay Ching Heang, but said next time the ministry would be more careful.
“We had a working group to inspect and evaluate. It will be difficult to do business next time,” he said. “We must study to confirm whether we should give” a license to companies processing yellow vine and consult with relevant ministries.
Conservation International’s country director, Seng Bunra, said he had been surprised by the Agriculture Ministry’s letter permitting Chhay Ching Heang to collect yellow vine for one year starting at the end of next month.
“Yellow vine factories, historically, they always ban,” Mr. Bunra said, referring to various regulations, including a 2001 Agriculture Ministry proclamation that outlawed yellow vine processing and the 2002 Forestry Law, which bans the activity if it will cause environmental damage.
“The question is why the Ministry of Agriculture approved this,” Mr. Bunra said.
Representatives of Chhay Ching Heang could not be reached.
Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said the ministry would investigate another alleged yellow vine operation in Koh Kong district, which the NGOs described in their letter to Mr. Sam Al earlier this month.
“In Koh Kong, if we have any other information on a similar situation or similar operation, the same measures will be taken,” Mr. Sopheap said.