THE “King of Koh Kong”, ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat, has been ordered to stop his company’s massive sand dredging operation on the Tatai river amid concerns it is decimating the waterway and ruining the tourist trade.
LYP Group has a permit to dredge at seven different sites on the Tatai river, totaling more than 32 square kilometres. Business owners and villagers, however, have complained the operations have reduced local fish stocks, released foul-smelling gasses and driven away tourists from the emerging ecotourism hot spot since May.
A letter ordering the temporary halt, signed by Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology, Lim Kean Hor, and obtained by The Post yesterday, identified several errors LYP Group had made, including pumping sand in the wrong locations and using excessively large equipment at the Koh Kong province operation.
“I would like to inform you that after on-site assessment of sand dredging activities of your company, we found out that the company has made some mistakes,” the letter dated July 15 reads.
The use of 20 to 30 boats – which each had a 500-cubic-metre capacity, eight cranes and four pumps – was “excessive”, and running dredgers 24-hours a day and pumping sand very close to river banks was a mistake, it read.
Mao Hak, director of rivers at the Ministry of Water Resources, said yesterday that a special committee would now reevaluate the environmental impacts of the dredging.
“The government’s sand dredging committee has been told to conduct a reevaluation of LYP and we began studying the issues immediately after the order came from Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said yesterday.
Pech Siyon, director of the provincial Department of Industry, Mines and Energy, said yesterday Ly Yong Phat had ordered his boats and cranes to stop pumping sand on the Tatai river.
The senator, dubbed the “King of Koh Kong” in United States diplomatic cables released earlier this month, maintained his previously stated position yesterday that he dredged sand to alleviate flooding in the area.
“I am a person who has developed the most things in Koh Kong, as you know. After seeing this problem [flooding], if I didn’t help them who else would come to solve it?” he said.
“When it floods people lose their properties and cannot travel.”
But the stop order has been strongly welcomed by tourism operators in the area, who feared they would be run out of business.
Boats have already begun departing from the river, headed seaward, to the cheers of resort owners, Janet Newman, owner of Rainbow Lodge situated on the Tatai river, said on Wednesday.
“We’ve just been like ‘hooray, no boats’. This is actually really nice to have nothing going on the river anymore,” she said. “For the past two days we’ve seen no activity whatsoever.”
Chum Sok Korb, deputy director of Tatai Krom Eco-Tourism Association, said yesterday local villagers wanted all sand dredging in the area, both large and small scale, to be stopped.
“We are living here and depend on the land for plantations and for tourists to visit the beautiful eco-tourism site, but if it was impacted from the sand dredging it would be regrettable,” he said.
“The villagers want to see all sand dredging in the river stopped in order to save the beauty of this eco-tourist site for the tourists.”
Tim Martin, an investment analyst at tourism promotion firm Pacific Islands Trade and Invest, has previously told The Post that dredging in Koh Kong had received wide publicity within tourism trade publications and had concerned potential investors.
“This should be a concern to the Cambodian government, because other countries in the region, like Thailand, Laos and Pacific island nations are pushing for greater ecotourism investment,” he said.
“More generally, the dredging could damage investor confidence in Cambodia as a whole because investors will see the Cambodian government as being risky to deal with - they promise one thing, then go ahead and do something else.
“It may only take a few deals to go bad for Cambodia’s reputation as a safe investment destination to be damaged,” he added.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA