New resorts, restaurants and casinos could be coming to Bokor National Park after environment officials endorsed an “improved” plan for the mountain along with oknha Sok Kong’s hotel company, according to the government’s news agency.
Ministry officials declined to elaborate on specifics of the 18,000-hectare project, although the agency posted photos of what appeared to be mock-ups of new developments on the mountain on Facebook.
Reached yesterday, Minister of Environment Say Samal told a reporter not to “worry too much” about the Monday meeting, claiming that nothing had been decided.
When pressed further on why he was approving new developments inside a national park, Samal asked the reporter where she had “park[ed] your spaceship”.
“There are areas we allow development and there are areas set for conservation,” Samal said in a message. “Let us have some homo sapiens reasons in us, rather than orangutan.”
Bokor Mountain, once a misty 1920s French colonial retreat, was occupied by the Khmer Rouge for years before being revived as a national park in 1993.
In 2007, the park was leased to Kong in a $1 billion, 99-year deal to redevelop the summit. Since then, Kong’s company has built a road, two luxury hotels and several condominiums on the mountaintop with plans for residential developments.
It was not clear whether the “improved” plan was a continuation of the development or a new project.
Kong could not be reached yesterday. A company representative in the marketing department said the project “is handled by top management only”.
In an email, environmental activist Ouch Leng said he was “very concerned” about Kong’s development of the park, noting the lack of transparency in decision-making.
“According to legal procedure, [development] must be approved by the King and National Assembly first, but it is not surprising that Government of Cambodia rents the national park [and] never conducts public consultation with the people that is owner of the country in theory,” Leng said.
Chea Sam Ang, director of conservation at the Ministry of Environment, insisted yesterday that the concept of the development “is to protect all the nature”.
Sam Ang, who said the expansion will be an ecotourism project, added that the previous casino, hotels and condominiums that Kong built on the summit had not disturbed the natural environment.
“Why?” he asked. “That area, they built a casino a long time ago already.”
Jackson Frechette, a flagship species manager of Fauna and Flora International Cambodia, said the centre of the 140,000-hectare park remains largely intact, leaving hope that it could be developed into an ecotourism site.
However, that requires a big commitment from law enforcement, he said.
“Sokha Hotels mentioned they wanted to develop protective activities and ecotourism,” Frechette said. “Whether they show up to the table remains to be seen.”
Mother Nature founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, however, said he felt the mountain was already unrecognisable as a national park after years of development.
He added that the planned expansion “pretty much reinforces what we’re seeing in Cambodia for over 15 years, where powerful elites grab land which belongs to all Cambodians and basically steal it from the state for private benefit.”
Additional reporting by Mech Dara