Botum Sakor National Park is home to some of the most pristine, least-explored forest in Southeast Asia, as well as many local communities.
But the government has been allocating much of the park’s land to development companies, several of which have been clearing large areas forest, leaving conservationists and human welfare groups concerned about the future of the park and its residents.
A REDD+ project was started in 2015 and is scheduled to run for two years, but critics say it has been ineffective thus far.
Botum Sakor National Park lies along the southwestern coast of Cambodia below the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong Province. From Highway 48 its green expanse of lowland tropical forest can be seen rolling away into the distance, eventually bounded by mangroves and beaches on the coast.
Long recognized as rich in biodiversity, in 1993 an area of 171,250 hectares was established as a national park through royal decree. The most thorough inventory of Botum Sakor’s wildlife yet conducted was a four-year study completed in 2009 by conservation NGO Frontier Cambodia. It recorded 49 mammal species, including endangered dholes (Cuon alpinus), Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), and pileated gibbons (Hylobates pileatus). It also documented 69 reptile, 147 butterfly and 196 bird species, confirming it as a global biodiversity hotspot.
“The natural resources belong to the State and they are not for sale to private owners,” reads the sign at the entrance to the park. However, this appears to contrast starkly against realities on the ground where much of Botum Sakor has been sold off to large companies as Economic Land Concessions (ELCs).
The park has attracted the attention of international conservation programs, and in 2015 awarded $130,000 as a REDD+ demonstration site. It was selected because according to the project proposal it has, “extensive evergreen forests and is a critical habitat for many endangered species such as the Asian Elephant, Indochinese Tiger, Clouded Leopard, and the Sun Bear.” (It should be noted that tigers have not been seen in Cambodia since 2007, and the species was recently declared functionally extinct in the country.)
Started in March last year, the project is scheduled to run for two years under the Cambodian Ministry of Environment. Mongabay explored the realities on the ground with which the project is having to contend.
Cambodia’s Economic Land Concessions: from forest to cropland and seashore resort
From a hilltop overlooking Cambodia’s Botum Sakor National Park, a pall of smoke can be seen rising through the heat haze. Once night falls it glows red. Day after day, week after week the fire burns. Its location in the park is clearly identified by NASA satellite imagery.
According to satellite forest data by Global Forest Watch, forest clearance in the park has been revving up in recent years. By 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 30,000 hectares of tree cover had been cleared in the park since 2001. In other words, Botum Sakor National Park lost nearly 20 percent of its tree cover in 15 years.
Urthecast satellite imagery shows one particular large area of clearing deep inside the park, with more than 4,000 hectares of tree cover loss between 2012 and 2014. This clearing is inside an ELC granted to a Cambodian company and earmarked for cassava production.
In 1998, the Cambodian government began to sell off parts of Botum Sakor. These ELCs, awarded to the highest bidder, have placed huge swathes of the park into the hands of private developers for agribusiness (such as palm oil and rubber plantations), tourism and infrastructure. Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law allows the government to allocate as much as 10,000 hectares of state-held land per ELC. Global Forest Watch shows active ELCs currently occupy nearly half of Botum Sakor.
Currently, seven ELCs have been designated to five owners. More than a thousand families have been relocated inland from their coastal homes to cultivate crops on poor, sandy soil cut out of the park’s tropical forests.
The law on ELCs is clear that they are intended to encourage conversion of land to intensive modern agriculture and it assumes that land on which they are sited will be cleared. However, according to a report by U.S.-based Forest Trends, “there is no legal framework to justify or support the allocation of the country’s forest lands to economic land concessions for monoculture plantation development or the cutting and collection of conversion timber.”
Troubles with The King of Koh Kong
The concession area containing the especially large spot of deforestation belongs to Senator Ly Yong Phat known locally as “The King of Koh Kong.” He gets this nickname from this southwest province, which is home to most of his agribusiness, gambling and real estate business empire.
“I got a land concession from the Government and it is a national park,” said Ly Yong Phat during a 2015 meeting. According to Open Development Cambodia, a non-profit monitoring organization, his company (LYP Kiri Sakor Koh Kong SEZ) was awarded 12,000 hectares in September 2008. This allotment was expanded by 4,100 hectares earmarked for cassava production in April 2010 with a lease of 90 years.
Wikileaks USA cables (accessed 9 March 2016) said of Ly, “As he currently serves as a [Cambodian People’s Party] Senator and advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Ly Yong Phat boasts to visitors that he was personally appointed to develop his home province, Koh Kong.”
The nearest access road to the fire is a checkpoint manned by private armed guards in military fatigues. They prevented Mongabay from travelling to the forest interior to directly observe the extent of the clearance. A sign on the checkpoint read: “No entry to those not on duty.” The guard barring entry said the land belonged to a company, but declined to elaborate.
Many local villagers say Ly’s company’s ELC overlaps their existing farmland to which they claim land rights. While some are refusing to move, others are demanding compensation.
“I saw several sawmills along the road” said forest investigator Leng Ouch, Chairman of Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces (CHRTF). He told Mongabay that he spent three months investigating the land disputes, resulting in a 97-page report [Original in Cambodian language – reported in Phnom Penh Post. He described how he managed to ride a motorbike along the rough 30-kilometer track through the concession and witnessed the devastation along the way for himself. He said that he saw many military police officers patrolling the concession area.
For his work documenting illegal logging in Cambodia, Ouch was awarded the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. The largest such award in the world, the Goldman Prize rewards grassroots activists by heightening the visibility and recognition of their achievements and providing $175,000 towards their work. Ouch and this year’s five other recipients were honored April 18 at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Ouch said that his investigations have not always attracted such positive attention.
“A couple of months ago two motorbikes with guys on them came to my house asking for me,” Ouch told Mongabay. He explained that he was not home at the time and his wife was worried, and that he has no idea who the men were. He said it wasn’t the first time he had been threatened, and he also receives regular offers of bribery: “Lots of journalists work with Ly Yung Phat. He asked me but I said no.”
In February 2015, Ly attended a meeting in person at the coastal village of Koh Sdach, in an attempt to resolve outstanding land conflicts.
“I have developed a new road for people. Why do we have to be enemies? I don’t know about this. If I did a bad thing to you I apologize,” Ly Yong Phat told the assembled villagers of Koh Sdach. “I am a rich man also but it does not mean that I have to develop here. I just want to show the government that I want to develop here,” he said (translated from a video of the meeting).
According to meeting participant Chom Rern Phal of Mother Nature Cambodia, it was unusual that the big boss attended this meeting in person. However, it appeared to have had an effect, according to NGOs monitoring the situation, as afterwards a number of villagers agreed to settle their disputes with him by accepting his offers of compensation. Others, especially those who claim legal paper title to their land, are holding out for a better deal and refusing to move.
According to Ouch’s research, 318 families in the park have yet to have their land claims resolved by the five companies that own Botum Sakor’s ELCs.
Accusations of land grabbing
Increasing conflicts arising from the granting of new ELCs led Prime Minister Hun Sen, in 2012, to enact a ban on new ELCs. He also encouraged enforcement of a policy that decreed people could stay in their homes even if they are in the middle of an ELC. However, Cambodian human rights group ADHOC highlights that since its implementation, the policy has been failing and people are still being made to leave their homes. The organization says that although people may have been afforded rights on paper, poor implementation and enforcement mean they are still losing their land In May 2015, the government re-affirmed its commitment to this policy specifically in regard to Botum Sakor.
Implementation of the 2001 Land Law, which limits the size of ELCs to 10,000 hectares also seems to be failing, with most of the companies’ concessions here far exceeding this limit. Hun Sen’s halt on ELCs was short-lived, with NGO rights group ADHOC claiming 33 ELCs have been handed out since the ban.
Along the coast of the national park a luxury Chinese tourism project, the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort and a Chinese port, is under construction. A four-lane highway built by Chinese property conglomerate Tianjin Union Development Group (UDG) cuts through the park to the 36,000-hectare coastal ELC awarded by the government in 2009. Along the highway, the forest has been bulldozed to mine road-building materials.
The resort “will become a new tropical beach paradise for the rich Chinese” says the UDG website. In China, gambling is illegal and the developers anticipate that the casino, the centerpiece of the $3.8 billion luxury coastal resort will attract wealthy Chinese. The development, which includes a golf course and airport, is slated to cover 20 percent of Cambodia’s entire coastline.
Meanwhile, local people accuse the resort’s Chinese developers, the Tianjin Union Development Group (UDG), of waging an ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation to force them to leave their homes.
When the author visited the coastal village of Prek Smach in 2015, local people recounted stories of intimidation by security guards connected to the UDG concession. Some said their homes had been burnt down and others had been intimidated by armed security guards. The author approached the black uniformed guards of “Kim Security” last year, but they refused to answer questions about the incidents. Ouch says that during his investigations more recently he found that they were still actively intimidating the remaining residents.
Phny Meas village is one of three relocation sites in the center of the park, behind the UDG development. Hundreds of families have already been moved here and are struggling to farm on the harsh terrain. Plots of land have been created by cutting down the forest. Villagers complain that the rocky, sandy soil is of low fertility.
In interviews with the author last year, many new residents said they had been relocated from the highly prized coastline, where they were accustomed to fishing and farming rice. To make ends meet in their new homes, some residents reported foraging in the forest for food – increasing the pressure on an already strained ecosystem.
Some villagers in the area complain that they were relocated before receiving the $8,000 per hectare compensation that they were promised by UDG. Many are still bitter that they have received little or nothing and some have even moved back to their former homes on the coast. Here, they say, they are at risk of being threatened by security guards that have waged a war of intimidation on the residents that remain.
One woman who contacted Mongabay by telephone from Australia* alleged that Senator Ly Yung Phat was attempting to broker the land disputes for other concessionaires – including UDG.
In her interview with Mongabay, Ms. Meas* explained that she and family members have fled the country afraid for their lives because they rejected Ly Yung Phat’s land compensation offer for a parcel of land they bought in the 1990s.
“We discussed the situation with Ly Yung Phat but he just wants us to give the land,” Ms. Meas said. She clarified that Ly’s company offered her family a few hundred dollars for the land – but insists that it’s worth much more than that.
“Our land is by the beach and he wants to move us to the forest and we can’t accept that.” She told Mongabay that the land is worth $100 per square meter and Ly’s company only offered 40 cents per square meter. “No more meetings, no more negotiations,” said Meas adamantly.
She also accuses UDG of burning down her family’s house, along with trees on their property.
“They burnt the coconut trees and the cashew trees,” Meas said. “We are very frightened when they come. It’s like the Khmer Rouge again. It’s very stressful like a nightmare in my brain. I hope things can change.”
Meas explained that because of LYP’s stature in Cambodia, she fears that that she and her family may even face prosecution if they set foot in their home country. “They can arrest us at immigration if we come back,” she said.
Mongabay reached out to LYP about Ms. Meas’ accusations. A representative replied, insisting “The LYP Group does not act on behalf of UDG in any official capacity.” Requests for comment to UDG went unanswered.
At odds with REDD+
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) is an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It allows rich countries to offset their carbon emissions by investing in projects in developing countries that reduce emissions by promoting sustainable forest management and limiting deforestation activities, such as burning.
Because of its substantial forest cover, Cambodia was selected by REDD+ members as one of only seven developing countries to begin work preparing for the implementation of REDD+ projects. The REDD+ project objectives in Botum Sakor include generating “improved understanding of drivers of deforestation and forest degradation,” testing “a set of policies and measures to address the identified drivers,” strengthening “capacity of staff, local communities, and stakeholders on REDD+,” and finally generating “lessons for the implementation of national REDD+ strategy.”
Rapid deforestation for agro-industrial commodity production is not included in the plan.
Although ELCs are mentioned six times in the REDD+ proposal, there is no acknowledgment of the intense conflict and deforestation that has been occurring, despite significant third-party coverage by news outlets and NGOs.
“It’s so typical for the whole bubble that REDD+ is functioning in, in countries like Cambodia,” said Marcus Hardtke, Cambodian-based Southeast Asia programme coordinator of ARA, a German-based forest conservation NGO. Hardtke told Mongabay he is critical of what he sees as a gulf between conditions on the ground and detached REDD+ project plans. “It has nothing to do with reality,” he said. “It has completely lost any link to the real world.”
According to the Forest Trends report, the Cambodian REDD+ programme has even been criticized by its biggest funder, the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility’s (FCPF’s) Technical Advisory Panel.
“While considered one of the better examples of REDD+ roadmap development,” the report reads, “the Cambodian initiative has been criticized by [FCPF’s] Technical Advisory Panel for its lack of attention to the impact of ELCs and the need to integrate them with land-use planning.”
The REDD+ proposal also appears to include a faulty map, showing different boundaries for Botum Sakor National Park than delineated in other official maps. According to the proposal’s map, the park has been reduced in size and does not include any shoreline, with the large UDG coastal ELC existing outside its bounds. Other maps, such as that from the IUCN – World Database on Protected Areas, include this ELC inside the park and show the park’s boundaries extending to the coast.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Khorn Saret, head of the REDD+ Secretariat in Cambodia, claimed to “know nothing about the project.” He referred Mongabay to project developer and implementer Kim Nong. However, Nong did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.
The land disputes in Botum Sakor remain unresolved, leaving tensions between local people and business interests simmering. Meanwhile, powerful ELC holders are pressing ahead with their business plans, which have so far included substantial deforestation of the national park to realize their development projects. The REDD+ project is so far finding little traction with the stakeholders in the park, and it remains to be seen whether it will achieve its goals by its 2017 end-date.
* Names and locations have been changed to protect privacy.
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