Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday requesting that he cancel all economic land concessions in Prey Lang forest following public outcry over the issue.
The letter, signed by nine parliamentarians, singles out a 6,044-hectare concession to Vietnamese-owned CRCK Rubber Development Co Ltd, but also calls on the premier to cancel the other concessions in the forest. The lawmakers also suggested that the government support listing Prey Lang as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Hun Sen approved a 70-year lease for CRCK in September 2009. In May last year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries signed a contract with the company, and CRCK began clearing forest in order to make way for a rubber plantation early this year, according to reports from local residents.
In the letter, the SRP lawmakers cited signatures from 29,208 people from four provinces who requested their intervention in the matter.
“Those violations have resulted in losses to a very worthy natural resource to the area, including natural forest, fruit-productive forest, wild animals and all kinds of biodiversity,” the MPs wrote, adding that the economic and cultural interests of locals, especially members of the Kuy ethnic minority, have also been adversely affected.
The forest, which stretches for roughly 3,600-square kilometres between the Mekong and Stung Treng rivers across parts of four provinces – Kampong Thom, Kratie, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng– lacks state protection despite its rich biodiversity and value to local people.
The Prey Lang network, a local activist group, says more than 40,000 hectares in the forest have been granted for rubber plantations alone, while 27 exploration licences and related concessions have been handed to mining firms.
Chhun Chhorn, Kampong Thom provincial governor, defended the actions of CRCK yesterday, claiming that the concessions in Prey Lang would bring development to the area and suggesting that the SRP lawmakers were playing politics with the issue.
“It is their right, awarded by the government, to clear that land to plant rubber. They are not acting illegally,” he said.
Chhun Chorn said people have used the forest for hundreds of years but are still poor and will find a better living by working for rubber plantations and factories.
Mem Sotharavin, an SRP lawmaker from Kampong Thom province, said CRCK’s practice of importing labour from Vietnam undermined any development it may bring to the area.
“I support development, but it should avoid [negatively] affecting people,” he said. “People have not had jobs [from the concession] at all. If people have jobs as [Chhun Chhorn] said, it is no problem.”