Cambodia: Plantations and the death of the forests

21 Dec

The Cambodian government has handed out hundreds of thousands of hectares for industrial tree plantations. The results have been disastrous for the forests, local people and for workers employed by the plantation companies.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 101, December 2005.

Based on a presentation at an International Meeting on Plantations, 21-25 November 2005 in Vitória, Espírito Santo, Brazil (organised by WRM/FASE-ES/GJEP).

Proponents of industrial tree plantations argue that plantations are “reforestation”, increasing the area of forest, providing jobs for local people, or reducing pressure on natural forests. The reality in Cambodia exposes these arguments for propaganda.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has handed out vast areas of land concessions, many to his business acquaintances and friends. While Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law limits the size of land concessions to 10,000 hectares, many of the concessions are far in excess of this area.

In November 2004, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, released a report on land concessions from a human rights perspective. In the foreword, Leuprecht wrote: “The situation I met shocked me. The companies have been given rights over land that are very similar to ownership. Yet they have little or no regard for welfare; and they contribute little, if anything, to overall state revenue. I have concluded that the policies are wrong. They are not reducing poverty in Cambodia, and they are allowing the continued plundering of its natural resources.”

Recent research commissioned by WRM in Koh Kong, Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces confirmed the problems.

The first that local communities knew about the 18,300 hectare acacia plantation planned for Bokum Sakor National Park was when a convoy of logging trucks, bulldozers and excavators rumbled into the park in March 2004. The company which owns the concession, Green Rich (now known as Green Elite) is owned by Freeland Universal Limited, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, with offices in Hong Kong. Asia Pulp and Paper Hong Kong offices are listed at the same address as Freeland Universal Limited.

Green Rich set up a logging camp inside Bokum Sakor in an area of mature melaleuca forest on the southern bank of the Prek Khai River. Workers started clearing the forest, building offices and houses and laying the foundations for a wood chip mill. Green Rich did not have the necessary approvals under the Forestry Law, the Law on Natural Resource Protection and the Sub-decree on Environmental Impact Assessments. The company logged several hundred hectares of melaleuca and mangrove forest – inside a National Park.

Conditions for workers were appalling. Green Rich hired logging sub-contractors from the northeast of Cambodia to bring workers and equipment to Bokum Sakor. The sub-contractors inflated the price of food and water for workers. Many found they had to keep borrowing money from the sub-contractors in order to survive. Several workers fled, swimming across the Prek Khai River at night or walking tens of kilometres through mangrove forest. Human rights workers and local police helped dozens of workers escape.

In May 2004, Mok Mareth, the Minister of Environment, issued an order to the management of Green Rich to cease all activities until it had submitted an Environmental Impact Assessment. Green Rich ignored the order and continued operations. Finally, in December 2004, the Ministry of Environment announced that it was taking legal action against Green Rich for US$1 million in damages and reparations. The lawsuit was dropped in late 2005 when the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries told the court that it had authorised the company to operate.

2004 also saw the start of Chinese company Wuzhishan’s plantation operations in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces. Pheapimex, Wuzhishan’s Cambodian partner, was awarded a 300,000 hectare concession for a eucalyptus plantation in 1997, during a period of turmoil shortly after a coup, in which Hun Sen ousted his coalition partner Norodom Ranariddh. Green Rich also signed its concession agreement during the same period. Wuzhishan, Pheapimex and Green Rich all have close links to the Prime Minister or his entourage.

Pheapimex has concessions covering seven per cent of Cambodia and holds the rights to all but one of the gold deposits in the country. Pheapimex’s record includes illegal logging, royalty and tax evasion and forcing local people into surrendering the forests on which they depend.

In 2000, when Pheapimex started to clear an area of community forest in Ansar Chambok Commune in Pursat Province, villagers successfully resisted by filing lawsuits challenging the government to uphold the law and by physically blocking the road to the forest. For three years Pheapimex carried out no further work on site.

In November 2004, however, hundreds of Wuzhishan workers arrived in Ansar Chambok. They started logging the forest, building roads into the forest and set up a tree nursery. Similar scenes took place in neighbouring Kompong Chhnang Province.

“I have eight children. If the forest goes and they take my land I will have nothing for them,” a villager told researchers. Once again, villagers from Ansar Chambok attempted to stop the destruction of their community forest. They organised a watch of the machinery, to prevent the bulldozers from entering the concession area. One night someone threw a grenade into a group of sleeping villagers, injuring eight of them.

Local police accused villagers of throwing the grenade at themselves. The Prime Minister dismissed it as a publicity stunt: “The purpose of the grenade attack, in which some people were injured and nobody died, was just aimed to make their propaganda voices louder.”

Resin tapping is one of villagers’ most important sources of income. Wuzhishan has cut villagers’ resin trees. “I am worried that I will lose everything. I have three hectares of land, but the village chief told me that they are all in the concession. I had 50 resin trees, but now only 20 are left. Thirty of my trees were cut in the last week,” a resin collector told researchers.

Work has stopped once again, at least for the time-being. In March 2005, Wuzhishan dismissed its workers and removed heavy machinery from its sites in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang.

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