The government has approved a 20,400-hectare concession in Koh Kong province to a private company on a quest for titanium ore, amid questions about the project’s impact on the local environment and the intentions of its investor.
The decision came ahead of a meeting on Friday to discuss the proposal by United Khmer Group, according to Wildlife Alliance, which has requested the company to conduct an environmental impact assessment.
Chea Thavarakcheat, the CEO of UKG who is also known as Chea Chet, has said the area contains between US$35 billion to $135 billion worth of titanium, though observers have called the estimate wildly inflated.
Suy Sem, Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy,o reported in a February 1 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen that the area has the potential to produce 35 million tons of titanium.
Others have raised doubts about the environmental impact and how the land, located in Thma Bang district’s Chiphat commune, might be used.
Chea Thavarakcheat is also listed in an online logging industry registry as the CEO of Chea Corporation, a California-based logging company described as having operations in Cambodia, $5 million in assets and 500 employees.
Chea Thavarakcheat said he didn’t know anything about Chea Corporation, and denied any association with it.
David Emmett, regional director for Conservation International, raised caution about the mine based on past experience with land concessions.
“Don’t just use the extractive concession license to make roads and clear forest and just say, ‘Oh there’s [no titanium] there but we have lots of timber.’ That’s the danger, and where the focus of the Forestry Administration should be,” Emmett said.
Last month, the Forestry Administration warned that the Kingdom’s forests were at risk of being eaten away by economic land concessions that have not been developed.
“Seeing the way exploitation and concessions are viewed across the country, that is my concern more than the money: are they really telling the truth?” Emmett said.
Chheng Kim Sun, director general of the Forestry Administration, and Pech Siyon, director of the Koh Kong provincial Department of Industry, Mines and Energy, could not be reached for comment.
Wildlife Alliance has been the most vocal critic of the venture and has conservation projects in the area.
The organisation said the mine would have a severe environmental impact and its worth has not been proven.
“The decision to approve the mine threatens to devastate one of the last remaining elephant corridors on the continent, put more than 70 endangered and vulnerable species at risk, and degrade one of the world’s largest remaining carbon sink reserves,” Wildlife Alliance said in a statement on Friday.
“To date, a comprehensive study to determine the size and concentration levels of the titanium ore deposit has not been conducted.”
But Emmett said the area was not protected forest, and did not contain such rich biodiversity so as to justify halting the mine if it could bring significant local economic benefits.
“This isn’t really a battle that should be fought on the conservation agenda.”
Instead, he suggested environmentalists reconcile with Cambodia’s need for economic development by identifying the most important areas to protect, and ensuring that development projects move forward with minimal environmental impact.
“Realistically, if it’s economically really valuable, we should support it and make it happen in the best way possible.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY