Cambodia approves titanium mine in world's 'most threatened forest'

Jeremy Hance
February 15, 2011

 Asian elephants in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Alliance.
Asian elephants in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Alliance.

The Cambodian government has approved a mine that environmentalists and locals fear will harm wildlife, pollute rivers, and put an end to a burgeoning ecotourism in one of the last pristine areas of what Conservation International (CI) recently dubbed 'the world's most threatened forest'. Prime Minister, Hun Sen, approved the mine concession to the United Khmer Group, granting them 20,400 hectares for strip mining in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains. The biodiverse, relatively intact forests of the Cardamom Mountains are a part of the Indo-Burma forest hotspot of Southeast Asia, which CI put at the top of their list of the world's most threatened forests. With only 5% of habitat remaining, the forest was found to be more imperiled than the Amazon, the Congo, and even the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia.

"We recognize that development is essential to Cambodia’s future, but that development must be conducted in a coordinated matter that respects conservation initiatives," says Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO of Wildlife Alliance in a press release. Wildlife Alliance has worked extensively in Cambodia for nearly a decade, including with the village of Chi Phat in the Cardamom Mountains to establish ecotourism. Many local residents gave up logging and poaching to focus on tourism efforts. For its part, Wildlife Alliance invested over half a million US dollars to build infrastructure. The area was even named among the 'World's Top 10 Regions for 2010' by Lonely Planet. However, villagers fear all their efforts will be ruined by the mine.

"Committee members did acknowledge that the presence of the mine in the area could mean the possibility of new roads or bridges but that those positives would be outweighed by the pollution they fear will pour into to the rivers near the village, and that the mine would drive away tourists and consequently threaten the jobs they have secured through ecotourism," John Maloy, Wildlife Alliance's Chief Communication Officer, told mongabay.com. He said the village's consensus was, "'if they do mining in Chi Phat, everything will disappear.'"

Incredibly rich in wildlife, the Cardamom Mountains is home to Malayan sun bears, Indochinese tigers, and pileated gibbons in addition to 250 species of birds. According to Wildlife Alliance 70 threatened species live in the area. Conservationists say the mine could particularly imperil freshwater species through pollution such as the Critically Endangered Siamese crocodiles. In addition, the mine is slated to sit directly on a migration route for the largest surviving population of Asian elephants in Cambodia.

While the United Khmer Group has promised riches from the mine to the tune of $1.3 billion dollars a year, Wildlife Alliance and the Cambodian newspaper Phnom Penh Post have questioned the company's projections. According to the Phnom Penh Post, the company was citing prices for titanium that were three times current market price and was projecting a big haul of titanium without conducting a comprehensive study of the ore deposit.

"Without scientific research to prove the economic viability of the proposed mine, bulldozing the rainforest is simply destructive and does not even make good business sense," Gauntlett says in a press release.

Mitigating Damage

Despite their opposition to the mine, Wildlife Alliance says that if the mine ultimately goes ahead it is more than open to working with United Khmer Group to ensure that the mine does as little damage as possible, both to the local people and the forest ecosystem.

An Eld's deer rutting. This Southeast Asian deer, surviving in the Cardamom Mountains, is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Alliance.
An Eld's deer rutting. This Southeast Asian deer, surviving in the Cardamom Mountains, is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Alliance.
"Now that approval has been given to the mine, Wildlife Alliance is calling on the United Khmer Group to work closely with the Forestry Administration, conservation groups, and local communities to ensure that it mitigates the environmental impacts of its mining efforts," Maloy says.

Maloy explains that there are many ways in which the mining company can avoid doing unnecessary harm, including outside monitoring: "it will be important United Khmer Group to accept monitoring by the Forestry Administration and conservation groups to ensure that they are clearing forest land in accordance with the law and that only areas that are to be mined in the near future are clear cut, preserving as much forest as possible."

In addition, Maloy says that the company should abide by its promise to mine in sections, and work with locals and NGOs to come up with a road route that doesn't push industrial traffic into the village.

Finally Maloy commends United Khmer Group's promise to reforest areas after they are mined, however they must do this correctly if the replanted forest isn't to fail.

"It is imperative that […] they are willing to pay the expense of enriching the soil that remains before planting trees, otherwise there is no chance that the forest will regenerate," he says. "Once again, this is an opportunity for the firm to work closely with the Forestry Administration and conservation groups—Wildlife Alliance already has an extensive reforestation program in the area with a large indigenous tree nursery located immediately outside the proposed mine area. So options are already available if the mining firm is willing to reach out."

According to the Phnom Penh Post, the titanium mine may only be the beginning. Reportedly, China is planning three to four additional mine in the Cardamom Mountains spanning some 100,000 hectares.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (February 15, 2011).

Cambodia approves titanium mine in world's 'most threatened forest'.