The Pulp Invasion – Cambodia

1 Dec

By Chris Lang, published by WRM, December 2002.

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CAMBODIA: Land-grabs, logging and plantations

This report starts with a look at the legal framework for land rights in Cambodia – the recently rewritten Land Law and the Forest Law – followed by a look at some examples of cash crop plantations in Cambodia. Although not related to the paper and pulp industry, these large-scale plantations provide an indication of the likely problems villagers will face with the introduction of industrial fast-growing tree plantations. The third section looks at the history of tree plantation development in Cambodia, and the final section describes the problems with Cambodia’s first industrial tree plantation, and how local communities are opposing the destruction of forests to make way for monoculture tree plantations.

Throughout Cambodia, village people depend on farmland, fisheries and forests for their livelihoods. In recent years, large scale logging concessions have reduced villagers’ access and rights to forests, and caused massive damage to the forests themselves. Of a total land area of 18 million hectares, the government handed over approximately 7 million hectares to logging companies. After cancelling 12 concessions covering an area of more than 2 million hectares in early 1999, the government suspended all logging operations in January 2002.

In addition to the logging concessions, however, rural people are losing access to land increasingly through the granting of concessions to businesses for large-scale agricultural plantations, often involving abuse of administrative or military power. In 2000, the government awarded a concession for Cambodia’s first large-scale tree plantation to the Pheapimex Group, one of the largest and most destructive logging companies in Cambodia.


Two laws are key to the issue of plantations in Cambodia: the Land Law and the Forestry Law. A new Land Law has recently been rewritten and became law in August 2001. The Forestry Law has also been rewritten and submitted to parliament for approval.


The issue of rights to land is one of the most crucial problems facing communities in Cambodia. In 1975, under the Khmer Rouge regime, private property was abolished. Only in 1989 was this formally overturned, once again allowing private property ownership. Although there was a recognition of the right to gain private land titles at this time, the vast majority of people did not receive a formal award of land and few people received land certificates.

The Land Title Department claims that 4.5 million people applied for land titles in the two years after 1989. However, this figure is likely to be exaggerated – it would mean that around half the population of the country had applied for land title (Williams 1999b: I 10 and footnote).

A new Land Law in 1992 failed to clarify the situation. Rather than addressing the issue of land grabbing that had taken place before the implementation of the law, the 1992 Land Law effectively made such takeovers of land and property legal. The confusion surrounding land titles and applications for land titles led to increasing land grabbing and concentration of control of land (Williams 1999b: II 6).

In 1999, Shaun Williams of Oxfam GB pointed out that “land grabbing is pervasive and is dominated by people with more power than their victims” (Sik Boreak 1999: 9). Williams calculated that the cost to the government of the failure to set up secure, registered land tenure through lost land tax revenue was US$12 million per year. He pointed out “This would be more than enough to pay for the participatory, rapid cadastral appraisal and registration of land interests throughout the country” (Williams 1999b: I 11).

In January 1998, the ADB’s first mission to review Cambodia’s land legislation took place. Five months later a Cambodian government task force produced a draft land law. In October, the government’s Council of Ministers adopted the law in principle. Shaun Williams described the draft law as “hastily conceived and fundamentally flawed” (Williams 1999a: 11). He pointed out that the advice given by the ADB’s land law expert “appeared to have been ignored by the drafters of this revision” (Williams 1999b: II 2).

The ADB made revision of the Land Law a precondition for release of the next tranche of its Agricultural Sector Reform Programme, which perhaps explains why the government task force produced such a hurried draft.

As a response to the October 1998 draft law, the Cambodia Bar Association established an “NGO/IO Land Law Working Group”, comprised of legal aid and human rights NGOs and IOs (International Organisations) (Williams 1999a: 11). The Working Group produced its own revised Land Law and has worked closely with government officials and the ADB’s consultants. Heng Vong Bunchhat, the ADB’s consultant told the Phnom Penh Post, “In some matters it is good to work together with organizations. They have contact with the small people and know their concerns. . . . But for the land law we did not only have to deal with social aspects. There were also economic aspects to consider” (Chea Sotheacheath and Marcher 1999: 4).

After two years of discussions, meetings and revisions the revised land law was approved by the National Assembly and Senate and became law on 31 August 2001 (World Bank 2001).

While the land law was under revision, villagers protesting against land grabs became a regular occurrence outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh (O’Connell 2000). In July 2000, the Phnom Penh municipality banned protesters from the area in front of the National Assembly. In several cases, villagers had lost their land and community forests to businessmen who took the land for plantations such as coffee, oil palm, cashew trees. In October 2000, Ou Yon, a Buddhist activist in Kampong Thom, was murdered. His colleagues linked the shooting to an attempt by former Kampong Svay District Governor Ly Kam Say, to seize community land for a cashew tree plantation (Bou Saroeun 2000). In Poipet province, villagers’ houses were bulldozed to make way for cash crops. As compensation, villagers were offered an area that was scattered with land-mines (Marcher and Lon Nara 2000).

In 1999, Legal Aid for Cambodia (LAC) had around 15,000 land dispute case clients. Two years later LAC has approximately 50,000 clients in 54 major cases. LAC classifies cases as major if the opponent is powerful (Cooper 2001).

In 2001, the World Bank launched a five-year, US$33.4 million Land Management and Administration Project, which aims to “improve land tenure security and promote the development of efficient land markets”. The project is to be funded by the German government (US$3.5 million), the Finnish government (US$3.5 million), the Cambodian government (US$3 million) and the World Bank, through its International Development Agency (IDA) (US$23.4 million) (World Bank 2001).

Despite the wide-ranging scope of the programme, all “policy and institutional development activities” involved in the project will be rated environmental assessment category C and will therefore not be “subject to special environmental review requirements” (World Bank 2001).

While there is little doubt that land rights issues in Cambodia are a serious problem, the involvement of the World Bank in a land management programme raises several concerns. The World Bank is not a “donor” but a bank and its loans must be repaid by the Cambodian government. The government must therefore raise money in order to repay the Bank’s loan. Allocating land to villagers is unlikely to make a profit for the government, whereas handing over control of large tracts of land to private companies (for tree plantations or cash crops) may generate some income for the government – while impoverishing villagers.

The Bank’s Project Information Document points out that “Lack of a land law is one of the main complaints of foreign investors in Cambodia (the others are high utility costs, inadequate infrastructure, and excessive bureaucracy)” (World Bank 2001). The danger is that the structural bias of the World Bank, as well as the Cambodian government’s enthusiasm for cash crops and plantations, will result in the land registration programme favouring private investors’ rights over those of villagers.

For several years, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian businesses have been taking over tracts of land in Cambodia for cash crops such as coffee, palm oil, cashew nuts, rubber, tea, fruit, rice, cassava and eucalyptus. In 1998, the Deputy director of the Agriculture Ministry’s department of planning and cooperation, Kith Seng, told the Phnom Penh Post that the biggest problem was finding the massive amounts of land investors were asking for (Sainsbury and Chea Sotheacheath 1998).

In 1998, the Phnom Penh Post reported that a Chinese company from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region had “secured” 18,000 hectares of land, with the approval of the Cambodian government to plant eucalyptus and sugar cane. The article stated “one local commune chief has criticized the plan, saying the first he heard of the project was when company signs started going up on commune land” (Sainsbury and Chea Sotheacheath 1998). The article doesn’t state where the project is, although it mentions that the government refused the company’s application to clear land in a section of Bokor National Park.


In 1995, the World Bank, UNDP and the FAO carried out a review of the forestry sector in Cambodia. The Forest Policy Assessment report was presented to the Consultative Group meeting of multilateral and bilateral aid agencies in Tokyo in 1996. In July 1996, the government formed a National Steering Committee to manage forest policy and agreed to four more studies, funded by the World Bank:

    Forest Policy Reform (Associates in Rural Development, USA);
    Forest Concession Management (Fortech, Australia);
    Log Monitoring and Enforcement (Development Alternatives Inc., USA); and
    Legal Counsel (White and Case, USA) (Bottomley 2000: 18).

The studies were carried out between November 1997 and February 1998, and the reports were published in April 1998. NGOs generally welcomed the information made available through the Forest Policy Reform Project and saw the process as increasing transparency in the Cambodian forestry sector. For example, Ruth Bottomley, of the NTFP Project welcomed the consultants’ recommendations as “an effective template for forest policy reform” (Bottomley 2000: 18). NGO Forum raised concerns in a statement to the 1999 Consultative Group about the consultants’ suggestions to establish a Cambodian Forest Action Centre which would enforce the forestry law with a staff of 700 armed rangers. NGO Forum was worried that this would bring yet more guns to Cambodia’s forests and would put local communities at risk (Bottomley 2000: 18).

Since 1996, international aid organisations have made their continued funding conditional on improvements in the Cambodian forestry sector. For example, the UK delegate at the Consultative Group meeting in 1996 during his presentation stated, “The Royal Cambodian Government must be seen to be making proper use of its own resources in order to justify continued support by the international donors allocating funds for which their is intense competition from other well-deserving sources” (cited in Global Witness 1996: 11). In May 1996, the International Monetary Fund suspended Cambodia’s Enhanced Structural Adjustment Fund payments because of the Cambodian government’s “Failure to observe safeguards with respect to illegal logging and other forms of corruption” (IBRD 1999: 48).

In this context, the World Bank supported a rewrite of Cambodia’s 1988 Forestry Law.

In September 2001, Ty Sokhun, the Secretary General of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife announced at a conference in Indonesia, “The draft has been reviewed and approved by the Council of Ministers, and has been submitted to both houses of the Parliament for adoption” (May Sam Oeun et al 2001).

The Environmental Working Group of the NGO Forum on Cambodia reviewed and submitted comments on the draft sub-decree on Forest Concession Planning (Bottomley 2000: 19). A consultation period was also allowed before the Draft Forestry Law was submitted to the National Assembly on 20 July 2001. Although the drafting of the new Forestry Law has allowed some participation and has to some extent helped to open up a discussion in Cambodia on deforestation and the impact of industrial logging, the various governmental departments and international organisations that have helped draft the law tend to have agendas which go against the rights of local communities to manage their resources. For example, the World Bank stated in 1999, “A sustainably managed industrial concession system can be the center piece for the Cambodian forestry sector” (World Bank 1999: 7). The concession system has proved disastrous for Cambodia’s forests and for its communities.

Regarding future development of industrial tree plantations in Cambodia, the institutional bias in the law is best illustrated by the fact that the Draft Forestry Law fails to differentiate between plantations and forests. The Law states: “Forest means a unit of natural or artificial forest ecosystem, in the form of wet, flooded or dry land, dominated by trees and mixed vegetation, natural or planted, wildlife and other natural resources located therein, primarily utilized for timber and NTFPs production, conservation and other forest services” (Draft Forest Law, 20 July 2001: 3). This deliberate confusion between a crop of planted trees and a forest or woodland helps the promotion of plantations in the country. Companies can claim to be “reforesting”, when in reality they are destroying villagers’ community forests, grazing land, commons and fallows, and replacing them with even-aged stands of one of two species of fast-growing (often exotic) trees (see Carrere 1999: 7-9).

Article 7 of the draft Forest Law includes “reforestation on conversion forest, idle land and other areas” as a duty of the Forest Administration (Draft Forest Law, 20 July 2001: 5). While conversion forest is defined in the Law, “idle land” is not. The inclusion of the phrase “other areas” could allow any land, anywhere in the country to be converted to monoculture tree plantations.


While not related to the pulp and paper industry, rubber plantations and oil palm plantations have similar impacts on local communities to fast-growing tree plantations. Rubber and oil palm plantations also involve using large areas of land, often land which is crucial to local people’s livelihoods.

During the 1960s, especially in the northeast of Cambodia, many highlanders were evicted from their traditional lands to make way for rubber plantations. The plantations, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s assimilation policies in the northeast and the bombing by the US airforce meant that the northeast was a prime recruiting ground during the first years of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge (see Colm 1998).

Since the 1960s many of the rubber plantations have been neglected and only in recent years have some of them been rehabilitated. The Cambodian government is currently encouraging the rehabilitation of rubber plantations and the development of new plantations.

In August 2001, Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a speech in Kompong Thom province at the launch of the Chhub Rubber Plantation Company’s 6,200 hectare plantation. In his speech, Hun Sen praised the company for “rehabilitating the ecological balance of the region, which was degraded to some extent by logging”. Local villagers are to grow cash crops between the rubber trees and will be given three hectares of land “to develop rubber plantations or grow other cash crops”. Hun Sen added, “Our people have been transformed from rice and slash-and-burn farmers into workers and owners of the family rubber plantation” (Hun Sen 2001).

Local people’s experiences with plantations and cash crops elsewhere in Cambodia however, indicate serious problems when large tracts of land are taken over by agricultural plantations. Two oil palm developments, one in Ratanakiri in north-east Cambodia and one south of Phnom Penh illustrate these problems.

In 1995, a joint venture company won a 20,000 hectare concession to plant an oil palm plantation in O Yadao district, Ratanakiri province. The company is a joint venture between Globaltech Sdn. Bhd. (Malaysia), Mittapheap-Men Sarun and Rama Khmer International (both Cambodia) (Colm 1996: 6). The project would displace 4,500 people from their land, while providing employment for a maximum of 400 (Paterson 1997: 4).

The company recruited villagers to clear land for the plantation including villagers’ forests and fallow fields. “The company measured the land that people were in the process of farming and said this land belongs to the company already – even if we didn’t sell,” one villager told Sara Colm, a researcher with the NGO Natural Resources Management Project (Colm 1996: 11). However, a trial plantation in 1996 was a complete failure and land the company had already cleared was simply left unused. The company then started to plant coffee, much of which died because of drought the following season. The company then built a dam to provide water to irrigate the coffee. Villagers downstream of the dam have seen their streams and water sources depleted. The company bought the land which was submerged by the reservoir from villagers at a price of US$52 per hectare. Villagers sold the land unwillingly, reasoning that the company would take the land anyway, if they refused to sell (NTFP no date: 2-3).

A survey by the Ratanakiri-based NGO, NTFP project, compares the potential income to villagers from planting fruit trees between 1995 and 1998 and the income to villagers from large scale monoculture. The survey concludes that the income from fruit trees is significantly greater for villagers, and “because it is based on a variety of crops is less risky and more sustainable than large scale monocultures that are being presented as the alternative” (NTFP no date: 1).

The report also sums up villagers’ problems with contract farming on large-scale monoculture plantations:

“While the company may be offering employment opportunities to local people, their sharecropping plan increases village peoples’ vulnerability because they will have to give up growing rice for their families in order to tend the coffee. Their income will depend very much on seasonal growing conditions and the company will dictate the price at which villagers must sell their beans to the company. Farming people are really being asked to take risks that they cannot afford to take. Their question to the company was . . . how are they going to look after their children and their old people if they have to give up everything and look after coffee” (NTFP no date: 3).

Another oil palm plantation, 150 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, has also led to problems for local people. A joint venture led by Mong Reththy, one of Cambodia’s richest businessman and Cambodia’s largest rubber trader, is attempting to establish an oil palm plantation on 3,800 hectares of land adjacent to Route 4, the main road between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

The joint venture company behind the US$12 million project, Mong Reththy Investment Cambodia Oil Palm, is owned by Mong Reththy (60 per cent), Borim Universal (South Korea, 30 per cent), and Lavanaland (Malaysia, 10 per cent) (Bok Chiv Tor 2001).

The land was already in use by people living in four villages in the area. Almost all of the 300 families in Tanei village lost land to the company’s plantations and many feel they were tricked into giving up their land. Villagers that did receive compensation were only paid for the land they lost and received nothing for the trees they had planted on the land. One villager explained, “The chief of the commune asked us to give our thumb prints on a statement, but so far we haven’t received anything. The government has given money to the company, but every month the company tells us it will pay us next month. Now one year has passed.” Mong Reththy denies that his company has received any money from the government (Mong Reththy 2001).

The company, with the help of the Phnom Penh authorities, moved 99 families from a squat in Phnom Penh to work on the plantation. However, few of the people moved from Phnom Penh have actually found work on the plantation, the processing factory is still to be built, and many people are simply moving back to Phnom Penh to look for work there.

When people were moved from Phnom Penh in early 1999, the company promised to give them two hectare oil palm plots in order that they could earn some money from the oil palm kernels produced. In July 2000, Mong Reththy told the Phnom Penh Post that his company “is still waiting on a loan from the Rural Development bank to pay for preparing the land and providing villagers with seedling and fertilizer” (Bou Saroeun and O’Connell 2000).

Six months later, Mong Reththy wrote to Watershed magazine, explaining, “The promise of two hectares of planted palm oil plantation is still on the Company top priority agenda. The company is sourcing every possible way to secure a loan from local and international banks.” Mong Reththy claimed that this was proof that his company is “more than willing to commit” (Mong Reththy 2001).

After more than two years, the villagers are still waiting for the promised two hectare plots. In June 2001, Bok Chhiv Tor, Project Coordinator for Mong Reththy, dismissed the problem, saying “The villagers can freely do whatever they please to earn their living. If they choose to work for the company we will give them employment.” He added, “We really don’t know how many of the villagers are currently employed by the company” (Bok Chiv Tor 2001).

In February 2001, more than 6,500 oil palm trees on Mong Reththy’s plantation burned down. Mong Reththy told the Cambodian newspaper, Rasmey Kampuchea, that the fire was deliberately started, arguing that the fire started simultaneously in two different places. The oil palm trees burnt were planted in 1997, and were beginning to fruit. The company estimated the cost of the damage at around US$70,000 (Rasmey Kampuchea 4 March 2001).

So far, the oil palm venture doesn’t even make a profit. The first fruits have begun to be harvested, but without a factory to process the kernels, the first year’s harvest was simply left to rot.

The US$5 million factory is planned to be completed in 2002 but it is not clear where the money will come from. Mong Reththy is currently negotiating with the government in an attempt to gain help in funding the factory. In May 2001, Mong Reththy told the Cambodia Daily, “If there is no factory, I will lose another US$1.5 million in 2002.” He said so far the plantation project has cost US$10 million in overheads, and this year it lost US$1 million (Kay Kimsong 2001).

In March 2001, the Rasmey Kampuchea newspaper reported that the Ministry of Agriculture did not encourage the oil palm plantations project, on the grounds that “it would not give a positive result”. In the meantime, Mong Reththy is focussing on his 1,800-hectare cassava plantation (Rasmey Kampuchea 4 March 2001).

Similar problems of access to land and unemployment will arise in other areas of the country if the Cambodian government allows large tracts of land to be handed over to agri-businesses or tree plantation companies. The experience from Thailand with tree plantations indicates that further environmental and social problems will arise as water tables are lowered, community forests are replaced by monocultures and common land disappears. (See report on Thailand)


There have been several plans to develop a pulp and paper industry and associated fast-growing tree plantations in Cambodia. However, the level of paper consumption remains very low at around 0.7 kg per person in 1998 (PPI 1999) and there is only one large-scale industrial tree plantation currently underway in the country.

In 1965, the Committee for Coordination of Investigations of the Lower Mekong Basin (the forerunner of the Mekong River Commission) produced a report “on the feasibility of establishing a large-scale pulp and paper industry in the Lower Mekong basin”. The justification was two-fold: to utilise the electricity that would be generated from the proposed hydroelectric dams on the Mekong mainstream; and to find a use for the “seemingly unexhaustable resources of wooden fibrous raw materials within the region” (Bryde et al 1965: 1). Thirty six years later the Mekong mainstream dams have not been built (outside China) and the proposals have been dropped, because of the massive social and environmental problems associated with such large-scale dams. Meanwhile, the forests of the region have been devastated by war, logging, dam construction, conversion to agriculture (often cash crops for export) and conversion to monoculture tree plantations.

The 1965 report looks at the possibility of establishing a large-scale pulp and paper mill in Phnom Penh. Having discussed the various possible sources of raw material already existing, the study concludes that they are not suitable for economic conversion to pulp, and “a large-scale pulp and paper industry within the Mekong basin is only feasible provided correspondingly large plantations of coniferous species are established” (Bryde et al 1965: 24). Interestingly, the consultants do not suggest possibility of eucalyptus or acacia plantations. The report recommends logging the “overmatured” pine forests in Cambodia, and replacing the natural pine forests with plantations (Bryde et al 1965: 35-39).

However, the report concludes “no obvious reasons were seen for assigning high priority to a pulp and paper industry. On the contrary, it was considered likely that other types of industries may serve the interest of the Mekong countries much better, especially those calling for more labour and manual skills but less capital investment per employee” (Bryde et al 1965: 9). The plans for a large-scale pulp and paper mill in Phnom Penh were quietly shelved.

Since that time, there has been little effort made to develop a pulp and paper industry in Cambodia. Between 1985 and 1990 the Department of Forestry established approximately 2,000 hectares of Acacia auriculiformis and Eucalyptus camaldulensis plantations (White 1991: 7). These were supposedly planted to provide firewood, although neither species provides particularly good timber for burning.

Foresters, whether employed by aid agencies or NGOs, will, almost invariably, sooner or later, recommend large-scale industrial forestry, including “reforestation” involving tree plantations. In 1991, Keith White, forest advisory consultant to the NGO Australian Catholic Relief, recommended a five-year “Industrial Forestry Plantation” programme which would aim “To develop industrial wood production forests on degraded forest land and to rehabilitate them to productive forest”. The consultant argues that this would provide rural employment and “viable economic growth leading to the establishment of needed forest industries” (White 1991). This programme did not take place. The consultant’s assumptions about rural employment are contradicted by studies carried out in Ratanakiri province comparing the income to villagers of fruit tree planting on their own land with income from monoculture plantations. The surveys, carried out by the Ratanakiri-based NGO, NTFP project, indicate that villagers would prefer to retain control of their own land and plant their own crops, rather than becoming dependent on one crop and one company for their livelihoods (NTFP no date).

The Cambodian Forestry Department issued a study in 1999 which recommended “Rehabilitation of the country’s degraded forest ecosystems” as a “priority concern for the future.” The report added, “It is clear that a priority need exists to put in place an effective system for land-use planning. The question of the best ways of rehabilitating existing degraded forests is a secondary issue” (Vientiane Times 19-22 November 1999). Rather than being a secondary issue, however, who controls the rehabilitation of Cambodia’s forests, and for whom the rehabilitation is carried out are crucial issues. Replacing degraded forest areas with monoculture (often exotic) tree plantations is a very different prospect for local people than community managed forest regeneration.

The Afforestation Office in the Department of Forestry, is currently carrying out a programme to plant acacia and eucalyptus which started in 1999. The chief of the Afforestation Office, Ma Sotaa said that the government-funded programme aims to “occupy the area for the pulp and paper industry” and will plant 2-300 hectares each year, with a total area of “more than 20,000 hectares”. The trees are to be cut after five years. The land to be planted is “degraded forest area, with only small trees and imperata grassland” according to Ma Soktha (Ma Soktha 2000).


In January 2000, the Royal Government of Cambodia signed a contract with the Pheapimex Group giving the company a 70-year right to “develop” 300,000 hectares of “spare forest” land in the provinces of Kampong Chhnang and Pursat. Pheapimex intends to plant the land with eucalyptus and acacia trees to supply a planned pulp and paper mill in Kandal province (Bala Chandran 2001).

According to the contract for the concession, Pheapimex must plant 5,000 hectares in the first year, and a gradually increasing area each year for the first 15 years of the contract. The contract also requires that Pheapimex deposit US$20,000 with the government as a guarantee that the area proposed is planted. The amount of rent to be charged for the land, however, appears to be undecided. The contract states, “At the present time, the government is not ready to collect the annual land rental fee” and any rent due is to be agreed in the future, “in accordance with the law and decision of the government”.

In December 2000, Pheapimex signed a joint venture agreement with the Chinese Farm Cooperation Group to build a pulp and paper mill. (People’s Daily 25 December 2000) The US$70 million joint venture is financed with a loan to the Cambodian government from the Import-Export Bank of China. The loan forms part of a deal between the Chinese and Cambodian governments to boost trade and investment between the two countries. Under the terms of the loan, the Pheapimex and the Chinese Farm Cooperation Group will pay five per cent interest to the Cambodian government. The government will pay three per cent interest to the Chinese Import-Export Bank (Bala Chandran 2001).

The Secretary of State for Agriculture Forestry and Fishery, Chan Tong Yves, told a reporter that he welcomed the deal and said the government’s efforts to draw investment into the agriculture sector were bearing fruit (Bala Chandran 2001). Pheapimex is well placed to benefit from such efforts. The company’s Cambodian owner Choeng Sopheap (nicknamed Yeay Pho) has “extremely close relations” with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to the NGO Global Witness. Yeay Pho’s husband, Lao Meng Ken, is a director of Pheapimex, and is a special adviser for foreign investment to Hun Sen (Global Witness 1999: 8) and Pheapimex is a major donor to the Cambodian People’s Party.

Pheapimex-Fuchan, a Taiwanese joint venture with the Pheapimex Group is the largest logging concession holder in Cambodia, with more than 700,000 hectares of concessions. According to Global Witness, “Pheapimex-Fuchan is an example of all that is wrong with forestry in Cambodia. They enjoy the protection of Hun Sen, they cut what they like and it seems that no one has the power to do anything about it” (Bangkok Post 20 June 1998).

Global Witness has been monitoring logging in Cambodia since 1994 and is currently financed by Danida as the Independent Monitor of the Forest Crimes Monitoring Unit, which in turn is funded by the UK’s DfID. The NGO has accused Pheapimex of illegally logging outside their concessions, logging in other firms’ concessions, threatening and attacking forestry officials, logging without the prior approval of the Department of Forestry and logging in wildlife areas (Global Witness 1999: 7-8).

Pheapimex’s plantation concession area in Kompong Chhnang and Pursat includes all the available forest land in the area. The concession is bordered by the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary to the east and by the Tonle Sap to the west. Both areas are protected. The concession may even encroach on the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary. If villagers’ commons and forests are converted to monoculture tree plantations, they will have little choice other than to collect forest products from the protected areas.

Villagers in Ansa Chombok commune in Pursat province are worried that Pheapimex will destroy 6,800 hectares of forest near their village and replace it with monoculture tree plantation. The forest includes an area of lowland pine forest (Pinus merkusii) which is rare in Cambodia and protected by law.

In February 2001, villagers travelled to Phnom Penh to try to persuade the government to halt the planned plantation (Bou Sarouen 2001). In March, a meeting between government officials and villagers took place in March in Ansa Chombok commune. Over 100 villagers from seven villages turned up to the meeting but officials allowed only one representative from each village into the meeting.

Government officials started the meeting by asking villagers whether they would allow Pheapimex to work in their area. The village representatives responded by pointing out that they would first like to ask the government officials some questions:

  • Before the contract was signed was an environmental impact assessment approved and if so can they see it?
  • Was the National Assembly informed before the contract was signed?
  • On which law is the Pheapimex land concession contract based?
  • What does Pheapimex think Eucalyptus does to the soil and water table?
  • What impact does Pheapimex/Government think a paper factory will have on the Tonle Sap and its fish?
  • Why when Cambodia is in a process of losing its forests is the government allowing Pheapimex to destroy more forest to plant trees for paper?
  • Did the Ministry of Environment see and agree to the Pheapimex contract?

The government officials offered no response.

Oum Huot, a villager from Ansa Chombok told the Phnom Penh Post, “We completely reject the idea that this land is ‘degraded forest’. This is good forest and the big trees were cut by loggers only in the last few years. If they leave this land alone for 15 to 20 years big trees will grow again” (Bou Saroeun 2001). “We are worried about this plan,” Luek Thuon, another villager from Ansa Chombok, told the Phnom Penh Post. “If they destroy the old forest they might as well come to kill us all. It is our rice pot” (Bou Saroeun 2001).

Villagers from seven villages that would be affected by the proposed plantations issued a statement in January 2001 opposed the project. The statement is reproduced below:

“We disagree with the company’s plan to bulldoze the existing forest and plant paper trees for the following reasons:

  • “We all rely upon the forest to meet our livelihood needs for it supplies resin, fruit, creepers, rattan, cassava, mushrooms, and housing materials and is also used for our cattle’s grassland. The wood so far has not been depleted and is still useful and profitable for us. The cutting of trees [by the company] will cripple us and also impact on people ‘s fields throughout the planned location.
  • “The cutting, which will lead to the clearing of 130,000 hectares in Pursat Province will affect environment that the Government have planned to protect and reforest. Instead, Pheapimex is planning to destroy the forest that is useful for protection against floods, storms, and erosion into the Tonle Sap River.
  • “When planning the agro-agricultural scheme, the company did not talk with the local people and didn’t examine the location of people’s villages and farms within the investment area. As mentioned, we would like you to solve the problem before it is too late and to demand the whole planned land in order to be people’s use and future generation’s property.”

An NGO visit to the area in March 2001 reported the various uses villagers made of the trees:

    “Trach (Dipterocarpus intricatus) and Chhoeuteal (Dipterocarpus alatus) both tapped for resin, Kroeul (Melanorrhea laccifera) resin extracted to produce varnish, Srakum (Payena elliptica), Pring (Eugenia sp.), Kuy, Vay and Rum Doul which are all fruit trees, Rum Deng Meas one of many traditional medicine trees, Thbeng (Dipterocarpus obtusifolius) for firewood, housebuilding and resin, Krakas (Sindora cochinchinenis) for firewood and Popel (Hopea recepei) from which small amounts of wood used to preserve sugar palm sap and also occasionally used for boat building. There was also a good amount of bamboo and rattan in the forest which villagers make use of.”

The contract between Pheapimex and the government states that “If there is wood with commercial value left on the land . . . [Pheapimex] must pay for the wood the whole price to [the government] in accordance with the existing forestry management law.” NGOs in Cambodia report that businessmen are paying for young trees to be cut down inside Pheapimex’s concession. The trees are used by fishing lot owners as poles in constructing barrages blocking rivers, in order to catch fish.

In October 2001, Chan Sarun, the Minister of Agriculture, wrote to the Department of Forestry, giving permission for the collection of non-timber forest products including “firewood, charcoal and young trees” in Pursat and other provinces. The letter seems to be an attempt to allow the degradation of the forest in the area of the Pheapimex concession. Another letter from Provincial Forestry Officials specifically allows local businessmen to collect poles in the area of the Pheapimex concession. These letters may relieve Pheapimex of the duty of paying the government for the wood cut within their concession area. The letters could also be an attempt to encourage the degradation of the forests in the area and an attempt to reduce local communities’ opposition to the project.

The 2001 Land Law could also provide a mechanism for challenging the size of Pheapimex’s concession.

Article 59 of the Land Law states, “Land concessions shall not be more than 10,000 hectares. Existing concessions which exceed such limit shall be reduced.” In theory, at least, Pheapimex’s concession area should be reduced in order to conform with the law. However, the article allows for exceptions and states, “The procedures for reductions and specific exemption shall be determined by sub-decree.” The government has yet to produce any sub-decrees relating to Article 59 of the new Land Law.

Opposition to the plantations continues. Legal Aid of Cambodia is working with villagers in Pursat province to create a forest protection society aiming to establish legally villagers’ right to forests for gathering and other purposes.

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