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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tea anyone? Nat'l Park diversifies...

Tea anyone? Nat'l Park diversifies...

M ORE than 1500 hectares of Kiri Rom National Park - an alleged sanctuary for Cambodia's

only native species of pine located about 100 km southwest of the capital - has been

signed over to a private investor who plans to establish a tea plantation.

Environment Minister Dr Mok Mareth said the decision to grant the concession was

made in an effort to protect the "core" zone of the park from indiscriminate

logging by providing economic alternatives for people living nearby.

But park advocates have described the move as "entirely inappropriate"

and as "an extremely dangerous precedent for Cambodia's national parks."

One went so far as to suggest the "tea plantation" was little more than

a ruse to gain access to timber in the region and that the minister had been "bullied"

into granting the concession.

"He has resisted this on two previous occasions, so why should he go ahead now?"

the source said on condition of anonymity.

But Mok Mareth denied he had been pressured to grant the concession.

"Generally, I am against agro-forestry in the park's buffer zone... [but] this

is a very big park and I don't think this will have a big impact... By planting [tea]

trees, we will improve the area.

"The plantation will provide jobs for local people and stop them going into

the forest to cut wood," he said.

According to Mareth, the Council of Ministers urged him to consider a proposal to

grant a concession to a company headed by the Nhek Khieu Long family "some time

ago".

"At first I was against the proposal, but after seeing the area I agreed - it

is just degraded forest and grassland," he said.

The Minister said the site included an area of 300 hectares which had previously

been a tea plantation and a further1000 hectares which had been degraded through

logging and agriculture "during the Khmer Rouge regime".

He claimed a contract between his ministry and the concessionaires outlined strict

environmental guidelines which included a clause forbidding any logging. The minister

undertook to provide the Post with a copy, but ministry staff were unable to locate

the document.

Kiri Rom is a 35,000 hectare area located west of National Route 4 approximately

half way between the capital and Kompong Som.

The region's unique pine forests - described by environmentalists as having a "very

high" conservation value - were included in Cambodia's system of national parks

by Royal Decree in 1993.

"This area is unique in terms of biodiversity and has enormous tourist potential.."

said one, adding that tea growing was unlikely to be economically viable.

"This is very marginal land in terms of agriculture, and the international tea

market is very hard to break into. I don't see anybody making money from growing

tea in this region."

Another source described the decision to grant a concession within the national park

as a "non issue".

"This park was set up in 1993 with the objective of managing the region to international

standards. To set up a tea plantation is inconsistent with those standards,"

he said.

"This area is a unique habitat and the national park was established to protect

that habitat... Plantations are a specific and preventable threat [to natural habitat],

he said.

"The boundaries of national parks may support resource sharing, but you can

only make that decision after research and as part of a management plan.

"Kiri Rom does not yet have a management plan - the area has not been properly

assessed so we should not be granting these sorts of concessions."

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