An Australian company exploring for minerals in Virachey National Park is reported to have asked villagers to build helicopter landing pads in the forests of the ecologically rich, ASEAN heritage-listed site, highlighting fears that Cambodia's nascent mining sector will undo conservation efforts in the country's fragile environment.
Yang Ke, 48, a member of the Proeu minority, said the request was made last month as he guided representatives of Indochine Resources Ltd., on a visit to the park, which straddles the borders of northeastern Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces.
"We spent two nights traveling in the jungle from my home to the exploration site," Ke told the Post in an interview at his bamboo house in Taveng district, about 50 kilometers from the Ratanakkiri provincial capital, Banlung.
He said the company officials had asked villagers to clear four different landing sites for helicopters because of the difficulty of traveling through the thickly forested park.
An Indochine Resources spokesman, who asked not to be named, said the exploration work was taking place under a permit granted by Ministry of Industry, Mine and Energy in 2007, and with the permission of the Ministry of Environment.
The spokesman said that while he could not say when mining operations might begin, partly because of the difficulty of access, the company recognized that the project would affect the environment.
"But we will try to minimize the impact and our project is strictly monitored by officials at the park."
Environmentalists, however, worry that mining in the park could seriously damage the Se San River and its tributaries.
“The river system in Virachey is one of the most pristine and unique in all of Cambodia,” said David Emmett, the deputy regional director of Conservation International, which has conducted surveys in the park for the last three years.
"The river contains species that don’t exist anywhere else on earth," he said.
"If runoff from mining was to change the water's pH level the whole ecosystem could collapse.”
Emmett said camera traps and surveys have identified populations of rare otters, turtles and frogs, endangered water lizards and pythons and fish species previously unrecorded in Cambodia.