Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon said the development projects and land swap taking place in the Phnom Tamao area will not affect the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) or the wildlife sanctuary covering 400ha there.
In a letter to the Council of Ministers dated April 28 seen by The Post on May 18, Sakhon’s statements were apparently made to allay concerns raised by the NGO Wildlife Alliance.
The information about land swaps at the sanctuary drew concern from Wildlife Alliance founder and CEO Suwanna Gauntlett, who sought immediate intervention from Prime Minister Hun Sen to halt the 500ha land swap that was allegedly being done so the land could be developed by an unspecified private company.
Gauntlett requested a courtesy call with the premier and sought his intervention to stop the development plan overseen by the ministry.
She said that should the project plan be approved and implemented, the Phnom Tamao area – located in Takeo province’s Bati district – would be split into two parts, affecting “more than 1,000 wildlife species and their habitats”.
She noted that it would also affect the reputation of the PTWRC, destroy all of Cambodia’s achievements of the last 20 years in environmental protection and make it impossible for her NGO to continue contributing to the project.
Similarly, Nick Marx – director of the NGO’s Wildlife Rescue and Care – said in a video clip posted online on May 16 that through cooperation between the Forestry Administration and his NGO over the last 20 years, Phnom Tamao has become an important spot for wildlife recovery and preservation.
He was concerned that the development project at Phnom Tamao would destroy a good place for wildlife and a good place for Cambodian people to visit to learn about wildlife.
“I, as well as other conservationists, beg Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen to keep Phnom Tamao untouched, for the sake of the safety of its wildlife and so it will remain a natural resort for the people living in Phnom Penh and nearby,” he said in the video clip, using the premier’s royal title.
However, Sakhon said the land swap will not affect the PTWRC, which covers more than 400ha and is surrounded by 8,394m of fencing along with the physical infrastructure built there.
He also stated that it will not affect the assistance provided by Wildlife Alliance or the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the NGO and the ministry.
“The land swap at Phnom Tamao is necessary for the government to develop the area in order to boost the incomes of people and local economy as a whole, as well as to provide more capital for other strategic projects, such as renovating the wildlife park and for the PTWRC to economically compete and generate incomes,” Sakhon said in the letter.
According to Sakhon, Phnom Tamao has many facilities related to wildlife protection, preservation, education, research and training along with many species of wildlife.
Sakhon’s letter did not say which land would be exchanged with the Phnom Tamao area or within it. Several ministry officials said they did not have any information on the development project in that area.
But according to a notice issued on January 14 by the Council of Ministers, the government had agreed in principle for a land swap of 500ha located at PTWRC in exchange for the creation of the Safari Angkor Park on 250ha in Banteay Srei and Svay Leu districts of Siem Reap province, plus the creation of the Mondulkiri Phytopathology Park covering more than 472ha.
Sok Vichea, a biodiversity researcher, said that development of the area could negatively affect the Phnom Tamao wildlife with habitat interruptions through noise, chemical substances and clearance of forest for development, which he felt should be done far from that area.
“If [the company] used the area to raise animals, that would not be a problem. But if it was used to build a factory, that would affect the wildlife,” he said.
Ny Kosal, a local resident living in Kandeoung commune of Takeo province’s Bati district where the PTWRC is located, said that development always causes some kind of impact but it should be applauded if the project is in the public interest.
“The area is currently not developed and it is time to change that. The NGO and the government should explain to the local people what they intend to do so they understand what’s going on and can find a way to benefit from the area’s development,” he said.