- For decades Cambodia’s Botum Sakor National Park has been carved up and the land handed out to companies as economic concessions, at the expense of the ecosystem and local communities.
- In 2021, a massive swath of the park, including its densest expanse of forest, was handed over to the Royal Group, led by politically connected business tycoon Kith Meng.
- While the companies developing the national park promised jobs, as well as homes with running water and electricity, and access to schools and health centers, none of this has materialized, affected residents say.
- Royal Group’s presence, and the threat of more companies grabbing a piece of the park, has instead sparked disputes that residents acknowledge they’re likely to lose.
*Names have been changed to protect sources who said they feared reprisals from the authorities.
BOTUM SAKOR, Cambodia — “We’ve filed complaints with four institutions now — the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Land Management, and the Ministry of National Defense — but only the interior ministry has responded,” said Vichea*, a resident of Cambodia’s Thma Sa commune, who requested the name of his village not be published when interviewed in April 2022. “The local authorities tell [us] they will do something to help us but they don’t; anyone who stands up to protest these developments is accused of being an opposition activist.”
More than a year later, in May 2023, reporters caught up with Vichea again in Botum Sakor National Park. Spanning 182,342 hectares (450,577 acres) along the Gulf of Thailand in southwest Cambodia, Botum Sakor was once the country’s largest national park. But more than half of the park was sold off to private developers between 1998 and 2017, mostly to investors with ties to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). As of July 2023, just 18% of the park remains protected.
In 2008, the Cambodian government awarded Chinese developer Union Development Group, known locally as UDG, 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) within the park’s boundaries, kicking off a series of land disputes that became increasingly desperate as they dragged on for more than a decade.
Despite the fallout, the government awarded UDG a further 9,100 hectares (22,500 acres) of the national park in 2011. Since then, Botum Sakor has been defined by conflicts over land brought about by ecologically harmful development projects.
In March 2021, an estimated 30,064 hectares (74,290 acres), another 20% of the park, was reclassified by the government as community-use zones. While this was ostensibly done as part of an effort to relocate Cambodians affected by government decisions to hand huge swaths of land to concessionaires in the decade prior, it was swiftly abused across Koh Kong province by land brokers who appear to have been buying up land earmarked for communities on behalf of Defense Minister Tea Banh and his brother, Royal Cambodian Navy Admiral Tea Vinh.
But none of these developments were what prompted Vichea’s 2022 complaint. That was triggered by the Sept. 15, 2021, announcement in the government-issued Royal Gazette that handed over yet another parcel of land, this time to one of Cambodia’s biggest conglomerates: Royal Group.
Headed by Kith Meng, a longtime political ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Royal Group won an 8,631-hectare (21,328-acre) concession to build a special economic zone (SEZ) inside Botum Sakor National Park. Not only does Royal Group’s new concession see the company scoop up one of the last segments of intact forest, but combined with new developments, it leaves just 34,058 hectares (84,159 acres) of the park protected as more than 80% of the protected area has been handed out to concessionaires or reclassified to house those seeking to escape the development boom.
A park consumed by land disputes
That boom has seen entire communities that reporters visited in July 2021 vanish. Among those who stayed, Oun, who requested only her first name be used, recalled the days when she had a 4-hectare (10-acre) plot of land in Kiri Sakor district, right on the western coast of the national park.
The location meant that with little more than small boat, Oun’s family could fish in the Gulf of Thailand for a living, eating what was left, and save money in the process. But that was before 2008, when UDG moved into the park.
“Before UDG kicked us off our land, we had food in the sea and homes on the land, but now, we need to spend all we earn just to survive,” she said. “I worry more than I am happy. I can’t earn, my family can’t save money, so if we have to leave here, there really is nowhere else to go.”
From 2008 until 2021, Oun was among the estimated 1,333 families fighting UDG for fair compensation. But as time dragged on, morale wore thin and she accepted the half-hectare (1.2-acre) plot she won through a lottery organized by provincial officials. These same officials told Oun there would be running water, electricity and roads linking this new community to schools, health centers and other basic amenities.
As of May 2023, this still hadn’t happened.
“There’s nothing, none of the things promised,” Oun said. “Other people have abandoned the relocation site in the last year. There’s no work, there’s no water, there’s nothing — people just couldn’t live here anymore.”
Indeed, Oun’s neighbors, who had raised similar complaints to reporters in April 2022, were no longer living in Botum Sakor. Oun said she didn’t know where they went, but across the relocation site, houses sat as mere skeletal structures, stripped of valuable materials and left to rot where they stand under the rain.
Sang Syneth, deputy district governor of Botum Sakor, could not be reached for comment.
Amid the bleak outcome of a 13-year dispute with UDG, Oun said she was cautious about Royal Group’s plans to build an SEZ that borders the relocation site.
At first, she said, there was excitement. The prospect of factories providing jobs close to home was something that the largely unemployed evictees relished, but Oun worried that, “We don’t have the skills that the company wants, so we stick to fishing.”
“I worry every day because this is Botum Sakor, maybe with Royal Group it will be just like UDG,” she added. “If Royal Group do as they say they will, it could bring benefits to the community, but we worry it won’t provide jobs to us or that they will take our land again.”
Residents’ fears realized
Chhen Voeung quit fishing sometime in 2013 or 2014, he can’t quite remember, but he remembered the eastern coast of Botum Sakor National Park getting too crowded as villagers who lost land to UDG moved across the park to Thma Sa commune.
When this happened, everyone’s catches from the water dropped, and Voeung, like many other villagers, moved inland to Chamkar Leu village, where they began to farm jackfruit, durian, cashew and coconut.
But the September 2021 announcement that Royal Group would be building an SEZ across Thma Sa and Ta Nuon communes quickly saw farmers in Chamkar Leu and other villages lose out as the company demarcated its new territory. By April 2022, Voeung said he could see the excavators working their way toward his village.
Despite having lived in Chamkar Leu for more than 30 years, neither Voeung nor any of the other villagers own land titles, largely because Botum Sakor National Park has long been state-public land that can’t legally be owned by private individuals. Even land reclassification initiatives, like the subdecree that redefined some 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of the park as saleable state-private land, have failed to produce land titles for the communities inside the park, making their homes and farmland easy prey for would-be investors eyeing up land in Botum Sakor.
“One family here lost a lot of crops to Royal Group,” Voeung said. “They bulldozed the family’s cashew, jackfruit and coconut farms, so the family took photos and then filed a complaint to the Ministry of Environment, but some representative of the company came to visit. There’s been no resolution since.”
Further down the road, Vichea gathered up 20 villagers to speak with reporters.
“Altogether, 111 families lost 408 hectares [1,008 acres] in September 2021, and those that had their houses dismantled, they watched as the military police did it,” Vichea said in April 2022. “Samdech [Prime Minister] Hun Sen must help allocate us new land.”
He added: “Please don’t print my name, I worry the company will have me killed.”
Royal Group did not respond to questions emailed by Mongabay.
Kith Meng’s reputation precedes him among Cambodians, and many villagers interviewed across Thma Sa commune said they feared they were under surveillance by Royal Group, as well as suggesting that Ministry of Environment rangers and military police were working on behalf of the conglomerate.
“We heard they might be building factories, but the company hasn’t consulted anyone in the commune and they won’t let us anywhere near the concession to find out,” Vichea said, adding that he has lived in Thma Sa since 1999. “They brought their own security guards and the Ministry of Environment rangers are being paid by Royal Group to protect it.”
When reporters found rangers camped at the site of the Royal Group SEZ in April 2022, they confirmed that they were there to guard “Kith Meng’s investment” and that they were blocking villagers, as well as reporters, from accessing the site.
Attempts to discuss the matter at a Ministry of Environment ranger station inside Botum Sakor National Park were met with silence. Rangers took photos of reporters, saying they would be sent to “their boss” in an apparent threat, but declined to answer questions on the future of the protected area.
Royal Group struggling to deliver on development deals
Royal Group’s progress on clearing the forest that stood where its new SEZ is set to operate had been slow, with only some 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) of the 8,631-hectare concession cleared between September 2021 and January 2023, according to satellite imagery analysis. Workers who spoke to Mongabay in April 2022 complained that the rains that batter the coastal province of Koh Kong were making it difficult to uproot the trees.
Between January and July 2023, satellite imagery showed closer to 2,700 hectares (6,700 acres) of Royal Group’s concession was now cleared, with excavators seen operating on the eastern side of the future SEZ site — an area where denser forest stands, for now.
Overseeing this operation on the ground was Tong Piseth, a site manager who owned the excavators tearing up the national park.
“Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen has stopped shaking hands with the Chinese and is looking for a bridge to work with the European Union, Japan and Singapore,” Piseth said, sheltering from the rain under a makeshift tarp tied to sticks. “Kith Meng is a bridge to those foreign investors. So here, we’ll clear the forest and build a factory for these investors. We had no real problem with the Chinese, we know they just want to use their concessions and casinos to clean their dirty money — they have a lot of concessions across Botum Sakor, but they haven’t actually developed anything really.”
For Piseth, who has called Botum Sakor home for more than 10 years, Royal Group’s plans for one of the last pockets of forest represents a future where Cambodians living there can have well-paid, higher-skilled jobs manufacturing car parts for foreign companies.
“Here, all people could do was fish in the sea, hunt the wildlife in the forest and clear the forest for timber to sell,” he said, noting that many villagers had experienced the consequences of this through encounters with Wildlife Alliance, a donor-run conservation NGO.
Over the years, villagers in Botum Sakor and across the Cardamoms have complained of forced evictions, having their homes burnt down and their farming equipment destroyed by Wildlife Alliance rangers, but the NGO contends that the villagers were engaged in illegal logging, illegal hunting and illegal encroachment on protected land.
“I regret that we are going to lose the forest of Botum Sakor,” Piseth said. “But if we protect the trees, someone else will just come and cut them down. I think the developments across Botum Sakor are helping to turn this into a land of opportunity, especially for the young people.”
According to Global Forest Watch, 328,195 deforestation alerts were recorded across 3,970 hectares (9,810 acres) of Botum Sakor National Park between Sept. 19, 2021 — just four days after Royal Group was granted its concession — and June 27, 2023.
But while the densest section of forest within Royal Group’s SEZ still stands, for now, the company’s first foray into Botum Sakor National Park reveals a dead end on the coast. In early 2020, Kith Meng was granted permission to build a 700-megawatt coal-fired power plant on the southern coast of Botum Sakor National Park.
Approved by Hun Sen’s cabinet in February 2020 and with an implementation agreement signed on March 4 the same year, Royal Group subsidiary Botum Sakor Energy Company contracted a subsidiary of Sinosteel, a Chinese state-owned company. But despite the fast-tracked approval of the $1.34 billion project, the 167.8-hectare (414.6-acre) plot that Kith Meng was awarded still sat vacant as of May 2023, with no notable changes since reporters first visited in April 2022.
Speculation has remained varied among analysts, who have suggested that the total lack of progress could stem from anything from Royal Group’s lack of experience in building coal-fired power plants, to lack of proof that financial arrangements were ever finalized, to even Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 2021 pledge to halt China’s support for coal plants abroad.
“Royal Group said they will build the power plant, but they have not, so we can still fish and we are happy about that,” said Khean*, a fisherman in Chamlang Kou village that overlooks the Bay of Kampong Som.
According to Khean, the villagers of Chamlang Kou had initially feared that Royal Group’s coal plant would see untold volumes of toxic wastewater pumped directly into the bay, spoiling the fishing grounds that supports hundreds of families along the southern coast of the national park.
No environmental impact assessment was ever made public for the proposed coal plant.
But while those fears have been abated somewhat by the distinct lack of construction, workers or even a sign marking the plot where the coal plant is supposed to be built, Khean said he remains cautious that the project could be resurrected.
“There’s nothing happening there and it’s been two years already,” he said. “The only thing Royal Group has done in Botum Sakor is clearing forest further up north in the national park. They’re building some sort of economic zone, but again, they have cleared the forest and built nothing so far.”
Worse off one year on
But as more developers enter Botum Sakor, land disputes pile on top of one another and communities are being squeezed out of a rapidly shrinking space.
Reporters caught up with both Voeung and Vichea in May 2023, and their accounts of the previous year suggest there’s little cause for celebration regarding Royal Group’s developments.
“Much land has been taken from Chamkar Leu village,” said Voeung, now the deputy village chief. “About 40% of the village has been evicted and Royal Group gave no compensation to the families affected and nobody here dares to complain or protest, because we have no land titles.”
Even more people across Chamkar Leu have left voluntarily after losing their farmlands to Royal Group. But now, Voeung said, provincial officials are warning those who remain that their village will need to relocate as more developers come in.
“They won’t say what they will do with it, who will do what or how it will affect our community, just that when it’s developed, our community won’t be here anymore,” he said. “We’ve lived here for a long time, there’s no space for more companies to come and develop Botum Sakor — we already have too many companies and not enough land.”
Neither Voeung nor Vichea were optimistic about the prospects of employment with Royal Group when the factories open; they were even less optimistic of still being able to live in Botum Sakor by then.
“Maybe 300 families across four villages have been affected by Royal Group’s project here,” said Vichea, who this time spoke to reporters alone.
The frustrated energy that had gripped his community in 2022 was gone, replaced instead by a grim sense of resignation.
“Everything is silent, we complained to the media, but the media cannot beat the government,” he said. “Hun Sen makes statements telling the companies not to grab land, but the companies still do it and people here are too afraid to protest, we’re tired of protesting.”
Vichea said new rumors that have spread across Thma Sa commune that Royal Group is seeking to expand the SEZ have gripped his community with fear.
“There’s no need to explain this, really,” he said. “It’s just Cambodian society. People are afraid of the government, the tycoons and their companies. They’re afraid the same way they are of tigers.”
Banner image: Excavators gouge a muddy hole into the soil of Botum Sakor National Park where forest once stood. Royal Group’s new SEZ will consume one of the last pockets of forest in the national park. Photo by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.