On the shore of Koh Kong province’s Kiri Sakor district overlooking a cluster of islands, a flourishing new golf course lies vacant but for a handful of workers tending its empty greens.
The Romanesque hotel behind it, replete with a bold central dome, luxury VIP suites and an alluring swimming pool, is just a taste of what its owners rather ambitiously claim will become the largest tourist destination in all of Southeast Asia.
Inside the gates to paradise
Long silent amid a barrage of accusations that it has forcibly displaced more than 1,000 families, duped them on compensation and decimated a protected national park, China’s Union Development Group has now adopted a decidedly press-friendly attitude as it attempts to win hearts and minds.
The company is eager to show off some of the works under way in its mega-resort and satellite city, which will soon boast a private port capable of berthing ships of up to 12,000 tonnes and an international airport.
“We are going to build hotels, a resort, commercial centre … airport, highway, hospital, schools, everything,” representative Ngou Tieng Lung says, adding that the port will begin operating next year.
As for the five-star hotels, casinos, airport, satellite city and industrial parks, all of this, Ngou says, will be added piece-by-piece over the next 25 to 30 years.
About 20 kilometres back from the tranquil coast they once called home, some of the villagers pushed aside for this gargantuan development are not going quietly, and have continued to fight, most recently by blocking company trucks and bringing their case to the media.
The latest uproar came after the company and local authorities allegedly burned down the homes of 45 families that were refusing to relocate in late January, an accusation Ngou denies.
“We didn’t set their homes on fire, only tents. Also, we never stopped fishermen from fishing, but we allowed them to settle in temporary tents when they went fishing at night,” he says.
“Anyway, they had made a contract with authorities and the company, and they had to move when the company needs it [the land] for investment, but they didn’t just set up tents, they built homes.”
The land in dispute falls inside a gigantic 36,000-hectare concession granted in 2008 to Union Development Group, which was later granted another 9,100 hectares to develop a hydropower dam.
About $10 million out of the $3.8 billion development plan for the project has been set aside for relocation and compensation, Ngou says, lamenting that many villagers still abandon the homes his firm has built for them for months at a time to go back to the sea to fish.
“No other companies help people as we do. We build houses for them. We give land and build a five-room school, a pagoda, a market for them,” he says.
“We are not like others who got the land from the government, and they log and do nothing.”
It is true that Union Development Group cannot be accused, as many other concessionaires can be, of simply abandoning their development commitments in favour of turning a quick buck from timber and jumping ship.
The infrastructure it is developing, including a four-lane highway and the hydropower dam, will undoubtedly push land prices up in the vast, already-built relocation villages as it claims, though probably a long time from now.
And though no match for their land by the sea, the package villagers are supposed to receive, including a house, farmland and financial reimbursement for property lost, looks far more generous than what has been put on the table in many of Cambodia’s other notorious development projects.
But when it comes to the implementation of this deal, organisations such as the UN human rights office, Adhoc and Licadho have found that while what has been pledged looks nice on paper, core promises aren’t being delivered.
“If we look at the reality, the government has given compensation such as 50 by 100 metres of land and a new house of 6 by 7 metres, but nothing can be grown on the land over there,” says Yi Soksan, deputy director of land rights and natural resources at Adhoc.
“Moreover, the government also promised to give two hectares of land for farming. Until now, according to our observations, the relocation area doesn’t have any land available for farming yet. From 2008 until now, it has been about five to six years, and they did nothing over there.”
One villager the Post met who had managed to grow a reasonable mango tree plantation and spoke in the presence of company officials, was not entirely pessimistic about the relocation.
“When we moved from one location to another, of course it was difficult,” Chan Phaly, who relocated about four years ago, told reporters during a company-escorted trip earlier this month.
“But after a long time of working really hard, we will get something. For the relocation, they needed to demolish many things, so we lack [things we need].”
Outside of the gaze of a company entourage, however, other evictees, including Peam Kay village chief Kem Rithy, say the soil is so bad at most of the relocation plots that many residents have fled as far as Thailand in search of work; and the complaints go further.
The Post has heard directly from evictees during multiple trips to the concession that compensation has simply not been paid or reduced to a fraction of what was promised.
For these families, many of whom have resided happily by the water since they moved there in the 1960s or 1980s, the financial compensation offer ranges from $8,000 to $200 per hectare lost depending on the strength of the families’ documented claim to the land and duration of tenure.
Ngou claims 1,147 of them have now received full compensation, leaving just 18 outstanding, but as recently as this week, that claim was being publicly disputed.
At a press conference on Wednesday, when Adhoc announced it was filing more than 100 land complaints to courts across the country, yet another villager came forward contradicting Ngou’s assertion that the company had not destroyed people’s houses.
“If we agreed to accept their compensation of $8,000 per hectare, after we thumbprint, they will give us only $200. They cheated us, and we did not agree for them to tear down our house,” enraged villager Rong Ky told the conference.
In his 2012 report on the situation of human rights in Cambodia focusing on concessions, UN rights envoy Surya Subedi found that, according to the terms of the 2008 lease, Union Development Group was responsible for the costs of compensation, while the government was responsible for administering it. Where a “resolution to relocate certain villagers or legal land possessors” could not be found, activity was to be suspended.
Nevertheless, Union Development Group is pushing on. It says that, ultimately, if a dispute can’t be resolved, it is up to the government and the courts to find a resolution, because the company has done its part.
Ministry of Environment spokesman Bun Leut and Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut could not be reached for comment.
As for its new approach to media engagement and transparency, Ngou is coyly apologetic when quizzed about why reporters were blocked by security personnel last month while trying to visit one particular village that has refused to budge.
“For this one, I will ask the Kim Security [firm] if, next time, any journalist or NGO wants to go in, just let them go in, because the security never inform us you know,” he says laughing.