Locals in Koh Kong province have written to the provincial authorities urging them to expel activists from local NGO Mother Nature who have been conducting a campaign of direct action against sand dredging firms that the NGO accuses of breaking the law and damaging the environment.
The letter, sent by a group from Koh Srolav village to the Koh Kong provincial government, lays out the villagers’ concerns: “On April 10 Mother Nature staffers came to incite the locals, divide us and disturb public order. They disrespected us and blocked the development of the village. We have help from the company to construct buildings as compensation,” the letter reads.
However, these “compensation packages”, Mother Nature argues, are an attempt to buy the villagers’ silence after they joined the activists’ protests.
But when Vietnamese-owned dredging company International Rainbow Co Ltd stopped building a road for the locals to use, villagers became angry with the NGO and abandoned the protest, village chief Heng Sam Oeun said.
The company “dredges the sand, but they also develop the village, such as constructing a 700-metre road, running a free clinic and schools”, he said.
San Mala of Mother Nature, however, said the local authorities were behind the letter.
“When a civil society group or anyone helps to protect the interests of people, the local authorities always try to sow the seeds of dissatisfaction,” he said.
Expelled Mother Nature founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson said in an email that the villagers had also received another letter, this one from the company, which offered “fancy ‘compensation packages’ to villagers” presumably in exchange for stopping protests.
International Rainbow director Va An could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Meng Saktheara, secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said that while he understood the activists’ concerns, he thought their methods went “a bit too far”.
“People in society have the right to file a report or complaint to the authorities if they have any concerns or suspect any irregularities in the sand mining operations in that area.
“But they should not have authority to act on behalf of the government or local authorities.”
He added that as a result of the dispute the ministry had begun an investigation of International Rainbow’s operations, which is part of a wider national audit of sand dredging companies’ activities.
“There’s a team right now that is working on this case. There are a number of questions that we have to check out. The company claims that they did not mine sand in that area, they only passed through it,” he said. “If they did mine in that area we have to check if it’s within the rights of their licence.”