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Spat over vegetable farm in Kirirom National Park

Spat over vegetable farm in Kirirom National Park

Environmental NGOs, the Ministry of the Environment (MoE), the Cambodian army and

a vegetable grower are involved in an ongoing argument over the fate of part of the

Kirirom National Park.

Several major environmental NGOs - including NGO Forum, Global Witness, WWF, the

Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International - wrote a letter October

2 to the European Union ambassador in Bangkok.

In it they outlined their "potential concerns relating to the activities of

Asia Urbs and Mr Michel Marty" over apparently illegal plans to develop a ten

hectare vegetable farm inside the park. The letter cited alleged "backing from

high levels within the military" as pressuring the MoE to agree to the project.

However, Marty told the Post by email that the story was a result of "misinformation"

and added his hope that the NGOs would "find some realistic solutions to the

daily destruction" of the park.

"I never had any plot in the Kirirom park," said Marty, manager of Asia

Urbs, an NGO set up to improve the living standards of impoverished farmers. He also

owns M&M Co., a private firm which supplies organically grown vegetables to plush

hotels and restaurants in Cambodia.

Marty said his interest in the park came about after "a demand" from the

Minister of the Environment, Dr Mok Mareth.

"I did present a small project with some ideas of eco-tourism to bring revenues

to the population living in the park and bring some income to the Ministry of Environment

to be able to protect the environment and control the development," he wrote.

He said the project had the backing of Army HQ to provide work and money for demobilized

soldiers.

Dr Guy Meargai, director of ADG, a Belgian NGO that funds Asia Urbs, said that his

understanding was that one aspect of the proposal did involve Asia Urbs developing

"biological agriculture" within the park's boundaries.

"However, to avoid any further misunderstandings ... I requested during my last

visit to Cambodia [that Marty] inform the MoE of his impossibility to implement the

project proposal regarding Kirirom Park he introduced last March," said Dr Meargai.

He added that the proposed project was "far [from being] a savage land encroachment"

and said the project would now be no closer than 35 kilometers from the park.

Amanda Bradley, coordinator of Mlup Baitong, an environmental NGO and one of the

signatories to the letter sent to the EU ambassador, said local people depended on

water from the park both for drinking and for rice cultivation.

"We are concerned not only with the potential environmental impacts of such

a development on the national park, but also on the surrounding communities,"

said Bradley. "Indeed the community forestry committee in Chambok commune, just

outside the park, has already registered its concern with Mlup Baitong regarding

this project."

The letter from the NGOs also emphasised the precedent that turning over a piece

of protected land to agricultural use would set.

An official at the MoE agreed the project was up for discussion but rejected the

NGOs' complaints, saying that the project would benefit the park. Kol Vathana, deputy

director at the Department of Nature Conservation and Protection, accused NGOs of

spreading the news to others before discussing it with the MoE.

"We welcome them helping us, but I think that NGOs should respect the government's

job. If they think there might be a negative impact, they should discuss this with

the government first before sending the news to somebody else," he said.

Vathana said that the enterprise would help protect the park by training rangers

to be eco-tourist guides as well as employing villagers living near the park.

"The company said that they will practice environmentally-friendly management,

so as not to damage the natural resources," he said. "The company also

said they would not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, only compost."

Besides, he added, it was not the job of the MoE to approve the project, merely to

evaluate it. Any approval would have to come from the Ministry of Finance.

Preah Suramarit-Kossamak Kirirom National Park is 117 kilometers south-west of Phnom

Penh. Its 35,000 hectares are home to a wide variety of birds, tropical vegetation

and animals, including tigers, elephants, leopards and bears.

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