Villagers of Pursat's Ansa Chombok commune are protesting a government decision to
allow Pheapimex-Fuchan Ltd to convert 6,800 hectares of forest near their villages
into a eucalyptus plantation.
The 700 villagers say the Pheapimex plantation plan threatens their traditional dependence
on non-timber forest products such as herbs, fruit, resin and bamboo shoots.
Luek Thuon, 66, one of the commune representatives who traveled to Phnom Penh this
week to lobby for a halt to the plantation plan, says the Pheapimex plantation is
a serious threat to his and his neighbors' livelihood.
"We are worried about this plan," he said "If they destroy the old
forest they might as well come to kill us all. It [the forest] is our rice pot."
According to Thuon, the forest set aside for the plantation has seen a resurgence
in endangered wildlife, including deer, banteng, and tigers, since a national gun
confisication program began in 1999. The villagers say the plantation plan threatens
the comeback of such animals in the area.
The Pheapimex plantation deal was signed in January, 2000, giving the company a 70-year
right to develop 300,000 hectares of "spare forest" land bridging the provinces
of Kampong Chhnang and Pursat for agricultural purposes. The eucalyptus is to be
cultivated to supply a pulp paper venture signed between Pheapimex and the Chinese
Farm Co-operation Group.
The agreement included provisions requiring Phea-pimex to negotiate with local villagers
regarding forest areas of disputed ownership. Villagers say their lack of documentation
stipulating clear title to the land has made this impossible.
Pheapimex Director Lao Meng Ken said the project in no way violated the property
rights of local people.
"I heard that the people complain about [illegal] cutting of their resin trees.
But we're planting [eucalyptus] in a place that does not violate their [property]
rights," he said. "So far as I know, the Pursat provincial authorities
have come to explain this matter to them already."
Not so, according to Ansa Cambok Commune representative Oum Huot.
Huot challenged the authority's classification of the disputed land as "degraded
forest" ideal for agro-industrial development.
"We completely reject the idea that this land is 'degraded forest'," he
said. "This is good forest and the big trees were cut by loggers only in the
last few years. If they leave this land alone for 15 to20 years big trees will grow
Keth Seng, Deputy Director of the Ministry of Agriculture's Planning Department,
says that the Pheapimex deal should in principle help to upgrade the life quality
of people in Ansa Chombok by helping to fund new infrastructure in the area.
Seng recognized the dispute over ownership of the land adjacent the Ansa Chombok
Commune, but blamed business people who bought up titles to the land prior to the
signing of the Pheapimex deal in order to extract a high resale value.
"The local people are the hostages of the land speculators," Seng said.
Huot and Thuon dismissed the prospect of trading their traditional way of life to
become workers at the Pheapimex plantation.
"We like to live with nature rather than go along with the new scheme and become
workers," Huot said.
The NGO Forum's Environment Working Group (EWG) issued a reaction on the Pheapimex
project warning of potential negative environmental effects if the project proceeds
According to the EWG statement, such a large-scale investment requires careful assessment
and consultation with local communities in order to avoid potential adverse social
and environmental impacts.
"If we don't consider this matter carefully the project will have a very bad
impact on our poor people and our society and the benefit will be only to [Pheapimex]
owners," the EWG letter stated.