Cambodia: local people risk everything to defend national park sold off to highest bidders

Residents of Prek Smach commune, Kiri Sakor district at a road block they have constructed out of trees and rocks. Botum Sakor national park, Koh Kon Province, Cambodia. Photo: Rod Harbinson.
Residents of Prek Smach commune, Kiri Sakor district at a road block they have constructed out of trees and rocks. Botum Sakor national park, Koh Kon Province, Cambodia. Photo: Rod Harbinson.
Botum Sakor national park is one of Cambodia's biodiversity hotspots, where indigenous tribes have long lived in harmony with the forest and its wildlife, writes Rod Harbinson. But now they are being violently evicted as the park is being sold off piecemeal to developers for logging, plantations, casinos and hotels. Now local communities are defending themselves and their land.
Economic Land Concessions have placed huge swathes, amounting to 70% of the park, in the hands of private developers for agribusiness such as palm oil and rubber plantations, tourism and infrastructure.

The sign at the entrance of Botum Sakor, one of Cambodia's largest National Parks reads: "The natural resources belong to the State and they are not for sale to private owners."

The reality unfolding behind the sign in the park is anything but, with most of it sold off to business. Farmers and fisherfolk have had their houses burned down and now resist regular threats from security guards hired by the park's new corporate owners.

It is a burning example of a struggle for land that has engulfed the country, reaching crisis proportions.

War widow Mrs Saen Saheng was at home with her grandchildren when 30 security guards entered her village of Prek Smach brandishing axes, sling-shots and electric cattle prods. Resident here since a young woman she explains:

"The company didn't come and say anything, they just came and broke down my home. They brought security guards and took it apart, two days ago. They were even carrying axes and hammers with them. They brought the axes really close to my face."

Sixteen families were at the time taking refuge in the village temple having fled their neighbouring village a month previous when security guards torched their homes.

When the villagers rallied the guards backed off, but then called in dumper trucks which blocked the village road with heaps of rock and earth.

In 1998 the Cambodian Government began to sell off parts of Botum Sakor's 171,250 Ha which has been a National Park established under royal decree since 1993. These Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) awarded to the highest bidder, have placed huge swathes amounting to 70% of the park, in the hands of private developers for agribusiness (such as palm oil and rubber plantations), tourism, infrastructure and quarrying.

A luxury Chinese tourism project, the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort and a Chinese port construction, are at the heart of this controversy. The villagers explained that they hold the district Governor Mr Khem Chandy, responsible for organising the ongoing harassment. They accuse him of being on the payroll of the resort's developers the Tianjin Union Development Group (UDG).

Soon villagers set up their own road blockade, felling trees and carrying rocks to block access to a new road constructed at the orders of the Governor. One villager explained that the road led to the Governor's private pier where he took the boat to his island house. By blocking it they were also hitting his income from parking and docking fees.

The Governor arrived in a shiny four wheel drive vehicle and unloaded a large chainsaw with the help of local police, presumably to cut away the trees blocking the road.

When asked for his response to claims of villagers, that he had ordered the security guards to raze their houses, he said: "The minister of Environment, as the chair of that committee, is in charge of solving the problem, not me." Mr Chandy refused to answer further questions.

Economic Land Concessions have placed huge swathes, amounting to 70% of the park, in the hands of private developers for agribusiness such as palm oil and rubber plantations, tourism and infrastructure.

Mrs Chum Ohn explained why her desperate story has led her to defend the barricades: "I had a house but four years ago the company came with axes and destroyed it. They gave me a new house 10 km away but now that is broken too. I received no land and no well for water."

With life at the relocation site of Ta Noun commune proving impossible she decided to return, only to begin another story of suffering: "I received no money, nothing, so now we just returned to the coast for fishing. I built a hut close to the sea but the company they came to destroy my hut too."

Over a thousand families have been sent inland to till sandy soil on land carved out of the tropical forests of the National Park, which is still home to a plethora of flora and fauna.

In 2009 a four year study of the park's animal life by Frontier Cambodia confirmed it as a global biodiversity hotspot containing 49 rare mammal species including Asian elephant, leopard, and gibbon. Their inventory also included 69 reptile, 147 butterfly and 196 bird species.

A high stakes game

A four lane 68 km highway built by UDG developers - a Chinese property conglomerate - slices through the middle of the Park to access a 36,000 ha coastal ELC awarded by the government in 2009. Along the highway, swathes of the forest have been bulldozed for building materials.

A big draw-card here is gambling, on a high-stakes level that will dwarf similar developments in the region. The centrepiece of the US$3.8 billion luxury coastal resort will be a casino, accompanied by golf courses and even its own airport. The continued ban on gambling in China lends temptation to potential investors, who may also be lured by the claim on its website, that its concession covers 20% of Cambodia's entire coastline.

The website says it "will become a new tropical beach paradise for the rich Chinese." It claims too that the project will house the permanent convention centre of ASEAN. About which the ASEAN Secretariat claims to know nothing, a spokesperson stating: "ASEAN National Tourism Organisations are not involved in this undertaking."

The website says it will also include a "tropical farm, fishing village and ancient town." The UDG declined to confirm whether these would be based on the existing establishments involving local people. Or they would be new purpose-built resort attractions. With local farms and fishing villages being currently being razed to the ground the evidence suggests the latter.

A deafening quarry blast shakes the ground beneath our feet as a nearby hillside collapses in clouds of dust at the port site. Rocks are soon being loaded and transported away for construction of shipping wharfs, dams, reservoirs and artificial islands, now transforming the area out of all recognition.

Challenging relocation

Mrs Sok Lim is toiling with a hoe to clear the course grasses that cover her small plot. One of dozens of houses strung along the dusty road comprising Phny Meas village, one of three relocation sites in the area.

The silvery soil underneath is nearly pure sand and, she complains, "nothing much will grow here." The new houses and land plots lining this dusty roadside have been hurriedly constructed by UDG on land carved out of the thick forest which still towers in the background.

Coming from the coast Mrs Lim is not used to farming like this and misses her once sufficient life of fishing and rice farming. Like her neighbours too she is bitter that the grandiose promises of compensation made by the company have completely failed to materialise. She says of the US$8,000 per hectare she was promised for her farmland, she has received nothing - a common complaint in the area.

Her neighbour Mr Vuthy says he has almost given up farming as he doesn't find it worthwhile under these conditions: "I planted some fruit trees but they are not growing, there is not enough", he tells me. "It's because of the soil - it has no nutrients as it sits on a hill. So when we plant we don't get much out of it."

To make ends meet he has taken to foraging what he can in the forest: "It is not just me going into the forest, as all the villagers are poor. Those who came to the relocation site have nothing, so we have to enter the forest and look for things such as rattan fruit."

He is acutely aware of the impact he and his neighbours are having on the forest but feels helpless: "We're all poor. We'll all go to look for products each year, so there is nothing left the year after. Hence the decline."

In response to increasing conflicts arising from the handing out of ELCs, in 2012 Prime Minister Hun Sen placed a stop on new ELCs and encouraged enforcement of a 'leopard skin' policy.

It decrees that villagers may stay in their homes even where they are in the middle of an ELC, 'like the spots of a leopard'. Since its implementation critics have cited many examples questioning its workability in practice. Nevertheless it does afford villagers, at least on paper, the right to remain in their homes.

The problem in Botum Sakor is all too common in Cambodia, and all the signs are that vested interests have ignored laws with impunity. Implementation of the 2001 Land Law which limits the size of ELCs to 10,000 Ha 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 group ADHOC claiming 33 ELCs handed out since the ban.

In February with the blockade having held firm for over a month, the Governor delivered an eviction order to the remaining forty seven families. The day the community counter-sued a woman, one of the forty seven, said: "We are not afraid of dying anymore, we just need to continue the fight."

Forest on fire

In one concession awarded to The Ly Yong Phat Group, the company of government Senator and business tycoon Ly Yong Phat, mile after mile of the tropical forest is on fire, reportedly to clear land for a Tapioca plantation.

The Senator dubbed locally as 'The King of Koh Kong' became infamous for his role at the heart of the blood sugar controversy involving child labour on his plantations. Global Forest Watch satellite data highlights the fire locations and shows that the huge area in the heart of the park has been cleared since 2012 and is spreading rapidly.

Ly Yung Phat wants villagers at the coastal community of Preach Sat out of his ELC but they refuse to budge. In February he even made a personal journey to the village calling a meeting in the village temple saying: "I got the land concession from the government and it is national park land."

Most community members were unconvinced as he continued to try and convince them, "I have developed the area and made a new road, so that local people will sell land to me. If I need local people to cooperate why do I have to be the enemy?"

One couple at the meeting who had farmed there over 40 years complained that while a few people connected to the commune chief had received compensation, most had not.

Settlers burnt out

As the boat navigates the twists and turns further into the interior of the park, the channel narrows and eventually we reach a small boat landing. From here it is a 3km walk to the village of Phum Thmey. Along the way we meet a charcoal burner and notice that much of the forest has been cleared, some to make way for Acacia plantations.

The villagers explain how they came here over ten years ago to farm rice. Some are ethnic Cham Muslims originally from Eastern Cambodia. All were dismayed at the ongoing struggle they have had to hang on to farmland they make claim over since a 18,000 Ha ELC was handed out to Chinese Green Rich / Elite Group in 1998 for palm oil and acacia plantations.

Since then this company, said by Greenpeace to be a subsidiary of Asian Pulp and Paper, has been extending its Acacia plantations onto their land, with support from local authorities.

Mr Choey shows me his wad of legal documents and explains how he has been battling to maintain his farmland since 2006, even spending time in jail. He said the government views the settlers as no more than land squatters who have settled in a national park which is off limits.

The settlers view matters differently, as Mrs Saw Phia, an ethnic Cham, explained: "They told us this was the company's land and that the villagers had stolen their land. To which we replied that it couldn't be the company's land as when we got here it had no owner and it was forested."

Many are aggrieved that after the company paid pitifully low wages to the local community to plant an Acacia tree plantation, they then burnt their houses down.

Mrs Saw Phia said: "Originally 14 Cham families came to live here, but now there are only three families left because some houses were set on fire and their land was taken from them by the company. We didn't dare do anything ... they got a lighter to set fire to the homes and some axes, so no one dared do anything about it."

The recently released Human Rights Watch, World Report 2015, highlights that land disputes in Cambodia are now running out of control stating:

"The number of people affected by state-involved land conflicts since 2000 passed the half-million mark in March 2014."



Rod Harbinson is a journalist, filmmaker and photographer who has reported on some of the biggest environmental issues confronting the developing world for over 20years. He has particular experience of the Southeast Asian region where he has documented and supported the struggles of indigenous and local people to protect their lands in the face of development.

Watch Rod's film 'Defenders of the Spirit Forest', a 25 minute documentary on the Cardamom Mountain forests at:

All photos by Rod Harbinson.

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