- A freeze announced late last year on new mining operations in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary comes with a massive loophole that benefits one of the country’s highest-profile deforesters.
- Try Pheap, a powerful tycoon and adviser to the previous prime minister, controls a company that was last year granted 28,000 hectares (69,000 acres) inside the sanctuary to mine iron ore.
- The name Try Pheap is synonymous with illegal logging in Cambodia, including the trafficking of high-value Siamese rosewood trees that drove the species almost to extinction in the country.
- While Try Pheap was hit by U.S. sanctions in 2019, his company that holds the mining concessions in Prey Lang, Global Green, isn’t on the sanctions list and appears to be ramping up its operations.
PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia — “I would like to announce to the public and the journalists that on November 2, the Ministry of Mines and Energy requested [Prime Minister Hun Manet] not to expand mining operations nor seek further mining business in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary,” Keo Rattanak, Cambodia’s minister of mines and energy, said at a press conference on Nov. 21, 2023.
According to Rattanak, Manet accepted the request the same day it was made, “demonstrating [Manet’s] will to preserve Prey Lang” by essentially freezing the issuance of new mining licenses inside the hotly contested sanctuary. The ban will also reassess existing mining concessions in Prey Lang, returning land not used for mining purposes to the state, Rattanak added. It will also prevent companies currently mining the roughly 490,000-hectare (1.2-million-acre) protected forest from expanding their concessions.
The announcement represented a rare victory for Prey Lang, the largest lowland rainforest in mainland Southeast Asia.
The vast protected forest sustains roughly 250,000 Indigenous people and serves as a sprawling carbon sink. It’s also a watershed that regulates water flows to both Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, as well home to hundreds of tree species, at least 20 of which are threatened or near threatened. Hunting and habitat loss have greatly reduced the wildlife populations of Prey Lang, but a 2023 report detailed 19 mammal, 34 bird and one reptile species being observed in the wildlife sanctuary via camera traps.
This resource-rich jungle that spans across the Cambodian provinces of Kampong Thom, Kratie, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng has long been targeted by those seeking to exploit its timber and mineral resources.
But as is typical in Cambodia, this victory came with caveats.
“For companies that were issued licenses by the previous government mandate, we cannot cancel the agreement,” Rattanak said.
This minor addition to the otherwise environmentally promising change of government policy omitted the fact that, over the course of 2023, some 28,000 hectares (69,000 acres) of land — most of which falls within the Preah Vihear section of sanctuary — was awarded to a company called Global Green (Cambodia) Energy Development for the purpose of mining iron ore.
In December 2023, Mongabay visited two of the new mining sites that sit within Prey Lang and observed that some 135 hectares (336 acres) of forest had been cleared to make way for the miners. Blue tin shacks had been erected and an array of industrial mining equipment tore into the red dirt where forest had once stood. Since then, Global Green has been busy.
By Jan. 10, 2024, composite satellite imagery showed that the company had built more than 36 kilometers (22 miles) of roads throughout the forest leading out of the concessions.
At the end of two of these roads, satellite imagery shows what appear to be new pits being dug well beyond the boundaries of where Global Green is legally allowed to mine.
Global Green has repeatedly been involved in Cambodia’s environmentally destructive extractives industry for the past decade, having risen to prominence by winning one of the only known licenses to export sand mined from the bed of the Mekong River — a practice directly tied to riverbank instability that has seen homes fall into the river.
Documents seen by Mongabay and verified by officials at numerous government ministries show that, in 2023, five separate mining concessions were awarded to Global Green across the northern province of Preah Vihear, totaling some 28,000 hectares. Of this, one 5,600-hectare (13,800-acre) concession is situated in Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, while the other four are slated to churn up Prey Lang in Rovieng, Chey Saen and Chhaeb districts.
While Global Green’s new mining operations haven’t been made public by the government, what remains of the local independent media was able to uncover one of the mining concessions in late 2023.
If these sites are exploited, particularly two mining sites spanning more than 18,000 hectares (44,500 acres) within Prey Lang, it risks fragmenting the northern part of the sanctuary, opening up the primary forest that sits south and east of these two concessions to trespassing loggers.
This prospect is made all the more likely by Global Green’s ownership.
Handing the forest to a timber tycoon
Global Green is just part of a broad portfolio of entities controlled by Try Pheap, a powerful tycoon who once served as an adviser to former prime minister Hun Sen (the father of the current prime minister) and who holds the rank of neak oknha, an honorific title paid for by a “donation” of more than $500,000 to the government.
The name Try Pheap is synonymous with illegal logging in Cambodia, with forests across the country shaved to stumps by the tycoon’s sprawling business empire. Like trophies of his conquests, Try Pheap Group’s head office on Norodom Boulevard and one of his many luxury homes on Street 302 in Phnom Penh, guarded by military police officers, are constructed from the high-end timber he has plundered from Cambodia’s forests.
Most notably, Try Pheap is credited with logging Cambodia’s Siamese rosewood, known locally as krornhong (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) to near-extinction through his relentless timber trafficking. He did this under the cover of “development,” exploiting the construction of a hydropower dam in the early 2010s to gut the Cardamom Mountains of high-value timber.
Despite enjoying impunity at home, Try Pheap’s trail of destruction across Cambodia earned him the attention of the U.S. Treasury Department, which, on Dec. 9, 2019, slapped the tycoon and 11 of his Cambodia-registered businesses with Magnitsky sanctions for corruption in relation to natural resource extraction. Global Green was not among those sanctioned, nor were Try Pheap’s children.
Until December 2021, Global Green was directed, on paper at least, by these children: Try Dalux (also made an oknha in 2018), Try Dalin and Try Daphors. But Ministry of Commerce records now list Hann Sinath as the company’s sole chair.
Sinath is also director of the eponymous Try Palace Resort, from whose board Try Pheap stepped down the day after he was sanctioned by the U.S., placing Sinath in charge as a proxy. In 2019, Sinath was listed by Try Pheap Group as “deputy general manager in charge of agriculture, industry and supervision.”
Sinath did not answer repeated calls from Mongabay.
A spectrum of destruction
In Rovieng district, where Global Green’s mining trucks are a ubiquitous sight, formerly tarmacked roads have been transformed into crater-riddled tracks of red mud. The seemingly endless convoys of Global Green trucks transport iron ore roughly 150 km (90 mi) from mining sites in Prey Lang to the port that sits on the banks of Tonle Sap River in Kampong Chhnang province.
The process has reduced the roads to a moonscape of ruts, with Global Green’s trucks kicking up storms of dust in the dry season and rendering them inoperable quagmires during the rainy season. Rovieng district officials, who weren’t authorized to speak to the press, confirmed that Global Green is repairing the roads, even as its hundreds of trucks destroy them every day.
The loss of local infrastructure is the least of Khuth Soeum’s concerns, though. As the Preah Vihear provincial representative of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a grassroots network of local activists working to defend the forest, Soeum said in a December 2023 phone interview that he sees Try Pheap’s recent foray into mining as an existential threat to the already embattled Prey Lang.
“The mining concessions in Prey Lang are not beneficial to the Kuy community,” he said, referring to the Indigenous group that makes up the majority of Prey Lang’s population. “It only leads to livelihood losses when nontimber forest products cannot be accessed, along with a loss of cultural traditions. Their lives depend on the forest and their spiritual beliefs in Prey Lang, so it’s a big loss.”
He detailed how mining in rainforests destroys the habitats of wild animals, with Prey Lang known to be home to an estimated 55 threatened species, including the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), pileated gibbon (Hylobates pileatus) and the Indochinese silvered langur (Trachypithecus germaini), all of which are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
“Mining destroys wildlife and wildlife sanctuaries, it pollutes water sources, which kills all kinds of animals,” Soeum said, adding that Global Green’s concessions will provide opportunities to land grabbers and poachers.
Above all though, Soeum said he was more concerned about who was behind this latest wave of mining operations than he was the operations themselves.
“I am most concerned because it’s Try Pheap’s company,” he said. “Previously, Try Pheap has logged Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary” — roughly 3 km, or 2 mi, southwest of Prey Lang — “and Try Pheap runs the luxury timber business. If the company cuts down trees as it has done previously, it will destroy Prey Lang’s forest, which already faces high [rates of] deforestation.”
The missing office and the silent spokespeople
Numerous calls to six phone numbers associated with Global Green yielded little. Most numbers listed by the Ministry of Commerce have since been disconnected, while attempts to find the company’s physical office, listed as #205BC on Street 51 in Phnom Penh, led only to a restaurant at #205A whose owners denied the existence of a #205BC.
One call did reach a staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“I’m not sure how many sites [Global Green] is mining, most are still under study, but there are four or five locations; one license covers all of them,” the employee said. “I don’t know much about them but they were issued this year. Licensing is not my area.”
When asked where Global Green’s office was located, given that #205BC didn’t appear to exist on Street 51 in Phnom Penh, the employee said this was intentional.
“We’re not allowed to share the [office’s address],” they said. “The company doesn’t want journalists to find it and write negative things about them.”
The iron ore mined from Prey Lang is destined for Vietnam, the employee confirmed, adding that once these shipments reach Vietnam, most of it is then reexported on to China. But they added there have been delays in exporting this year due to shallow water on the Tonle Sap River, which is used to ship the iron ore from Try Pheap’s recently completed port in Kampong Chhnang province.
The Global Green employee also said environmental impact assessments had been completed and had been done so by E&A Consultants, but none of these studies have been made public. A staff member at E&A Consultants hung up when Mongabay reporters introduced themselves as journalists; they haven’t responded to numerous calls since.
“Prey Lang is a hot topic right now. We saw the minister [Keo Rattanak] mentioned it, so I cannot say more,” the Global Green employee said before hanging up.
Officials at the provincial and district levels across Preah Vihear, who spoke to Mongabay on the condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak to the press, confirmed that Try Pheap retains control of Global Green and the locations of the five mining sites. One is licensed to extract in Rovieng district, the rest are only licensed for exploration.
District officials expressed frustration at the national-level ministries for not making the documents public, but were able to confirm the locations of each mining concession.
However, Kim Rithy, provincial governor of Preah Vihear, remained tight-lipped when contacted by Mongabay.
Neither he, minister of environment Eang Sophalleth, minister of mines and energy Keo Rattanak nor their respective spokespeople responded to multiple requests for comment.
“The public has a right to know, because you don’t have regenerative mining,” said Pech Pisey, director of Transparency International’s Cambodia office. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
He said the lack of accountability in the sector means that Cambodia’s natural resources, and the profits generated from them, will be plundered with no benefit to the government or the public.
“There’s a dire need for Cambodia to improve accountability in mining, because if managed properly, the government can use the increased revenues for sustainable development, they can invest in infrastructure, education and health,” Pisey said in a December 2023 interview with Mongabay. “Without accountability, the money generated from mining will only go to a few elites at the expense of local people and Cambodia’s national resources.”
‘Nothing to hope for’ and no transparency
The total absence of information shared by the government is also cause for concern among PLCN activists.
“Prey Lang will lose more natural resources with this company coming in,” Srey Thei, a member of the PLCN’s Preah Vihear provincial chapter said of Global Green. “If they start mining, there will be chemicals draining into the water table. This can reach the rivers which people around the area rely on, [and if not managed properly] it could kill animals and people.”
Similar concerns were raised by the PLCN and residents of the Kampong Thom stretch of Prey Lang, where Late Cheng Mining Development, a Chinese-run gold mine, has introduced industrial levels of cyanide to the delicate rainforest ecosystem.
“I haven’t seen a license [for Global Green’s mining activity],” Thei said. “I asked the commune chief, he didn’t know either, but the company is definitely present inside Prey Lang. They’re constructing something in Thmea commune, between Chey Saen and Chhaeb districts. I’ve seen lots of trucks and mining machines traveling there.”
In December 2023, the predominantly ethnically Kuy residents of Thmea commune, who requested their names not be published for fear of reprisals from either Global Green or local officials, told Mongabay that the company had only been in Prey Lang for a few months, but had already destroyed a large chunk of forest — at least 100 hectares (250 acres). The area had previously attracted a Chinese mining company, the residents said, but it had never caused much damage.
Documents dated April and August 2023, seen by Mongabay, show that two concessions — one in Prey Lang and one in Beng Per, both protected wildlife sanctuaries — were transferred to Global Green in August 2023 by a Chinese company, Hua Rong, that had been issued mining concessions and done little with them. The other three concessions appear to have been granted directly to Global Green.
Global Green has brought in external private security guards to monitor access to the site, causing consternation among locals that they may no longer be able to access the forest where they’ve traditionally foraged for fruits, herbs and vegetables.
“There is nothing to hope for when a company like this comes into the forest,” one man told reporters. “Many people fear that the company will take our land. We have no legal way to defend ourselves against powerful companies because the government will always support the company.”
Banner image: An aerial view of Global Green’s most active mining site in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary taken in December 2023. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.