The director of a private company planning to open a 63,000-hectare rubber plantation in Preah Vihear province has alleged that government officials negotiated the project for seven months without informing him that the plantation was six times the legal limit for land concessions. China’s official news agency Xinhua announced on March 31 that a little-known Cambodian company, Suigang Investment Development Co Ltd, had signed a contract with China’s largest rubber producer, Hainan Natural Rubber Industry Group Corp, to plant rubber on some 63,000 hectares in Preah Vihear.
Suigang originally requested a 90,000-hectare concession from the government in October, and a team of Agriculture Ministry and Forestry Administration officials surveyed the proposed land in November. But the concession was reduced to 66,000 hectares because of a lack of available land.
Forestry officials pointed out last week that the planned concession encroached on protected forest and rural communities in Preah Vihear and was six times larger than the legal 10,000-hectare limit.
Four days after the first published media reports noted that the concession size was illegal, Nguon Kimheang of the Agriculture Ministry’s planning department, who led the November survey team, informed Suigang of the 10,000-hectare concession limit, the company’s director, Sim Sonthim, claimed in a interview on Tuesday.
“The working group in charge of visiting the site had no duty to tell me what land concession policies are. Even if they found a large area doesn’t mean they’ll give it to us,” Sim Sonthim said. “We won’t receive the 60,000 hectares as we wanted,” he said.
“I am not upset that the government officials did not tell me about the legal limit, that I could get 10,000 hectares,” he added.
“Suigang has no plan to cut down trees,” said Sim Sonthim, adding that the land in question is not tree-covered.
However, information obtained last week indicates that 88 percent of that land is covered by deciduous forest.
“If the land is covered with trees, they must not give it to us,” Sim Sonthim said. “My vision is that I will not do anything wrong.”
Neither Nguon Kimheang nor planning department spokesman Kith Seng could be reached for comment Thursday.
Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun said on Thursday that he knew nothing about Suigang or the planned plantation, but noted that the legal limit was 10,000 hectares. “That size is really too big. We cannot allow it,” he said.
Hainan Natural Rubber had offered to invest $200 million in the 60,000-plus hectare plantation, but would still be interested in a smaller concession, Sim Sonthim said. But he added that it was possible that his company’s concession could eventually exceed 10,000 hectares.
“If we are successful with the first 10,000 hectares, then we can ask [the government] for another 10,000,” he said.
Such a strategy would be similar to that seen in the case of the Chinese company Wuzhishan LS Group in Mondolkiri province.
In August 2004, Cambodian officials agreed in principle to grant the company a land concession for a Mondolkiri pine-tree plantation of almost 200,000 hectares, according to inter-ministry correspondence. But the concession was limited to 10,000 hectares pending discussions with donor countries. The exact size of the concession is now unknown.
Sim Sonthim also confirmed that his companyÑwhich does not have a telephone number but has registered $5 million in capital with the Commerce MinistryÑis located in a fourth-floor apartment at No 198, Street 217.
A visit to that address last week found a painters’ workshop on the ground floor and a painter who knew nothing of a company being located above his shop.
Sim Sonthim said the apartment belongs to a former company director, Heng Song, and that the company, founded in April 2005, was located in the modest residential apartment temporarily “because the company has no concrete work yet.”
A visit to the Suigang office, located up a narrow stairwell, found the apartment door padlocked behind a folding gate on Wednesday and clothing hung to dry on the balcony.
After the Khmer New Year, the company plans to move to new offices occupying three floors in two buildings on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard in Tuol Kok district, Sim Sonthim added.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)