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A sea change for island residents

There are often more than 10 people at work clearing land that has been slated for development
There are often more than 10 people at work clearing land that has been slated for development. Charlotte Pert

A sea change for island residents

‘Rabbit Island’ has always been a world apart from the bustling coastline. Now new development threatens its tranquillity

In Koh Tonsay’s southwest beach on Tuesday afternoon, Soeng Pov sorted through her glimmering green seaweed crops metres away from the remains of her demolished home. Born and raised on the island off the coast of Kep, the 53-year-old said workers hired by a developer bulldozed her house last month.

Although Pov has temporarily relocated about a 30-minute walk away and is still allowed to harvest her seaweed crop, she said she fears her days on her island home are numbered.

“I don’t know how to start with a new place and a new job, but I have no right to decide since they came to develop in our place,” she said, adding she had no land title despite living on the island her entire life.

Seaweed harvester Seng Hourng says she has not received any money from the government
Seaweed harvester Seng Hourng says she has not received any money from the government. Charlotte Pert

With its unspoilt beaches and cheap accommodation, Koh Tonsay, which means “Rabbit Island” in Khmer, has long been a popular destination for Cambodian and foreign visitors alike. But land clearing along the southwest shore has fuelled rumours that the island paradise may soon be lost.

The path south of the main beach has now become a makeshift road marked by heavy vehicle treads less than 100 metres from the bungalows. This week, half a dozen men could be found slashing and burning more of the trees.

“My work is to clean the land and burn the trees,” Nam Yan, a 60-year-old worker from Kampot, said. They were short-staffed that day – normally, more than 10 men work clearing the land. More destruction was evident further along the shore, with a bulldozer sitting next to a stretch of felled trees.

Tep Yuthy, Kep deputy governor, said parts of the island were owned by developers Paul Chan Group and Lim Sina Investment, with the former having 95.59 hectares and the latter 51.21 hectares. Both developers planned to build resorts, though he said he was unsure of the specifics.

The rest of the 600-hectare island remained state property, he added.

The island is currently reached by small motor boats
The island is currently reached by small motor boats. Charlotte Pert

Ten fishing and seaweed farming families had already received compensation, while another five were still negotiating, Yuthy said. Compensation was being provided by the firms, he added, with oversight from the Council of Development of Cambodia (CDC). 

“The CDC has created a development committee group to survey and collect data to negotiate with the people,” said Yuthy, adding that some people received as much as $40,000. Factors such as the size of the houses, time span of residence and number of fruit-bearing trees on the property are being used to determine value.

Wing Hour, the tycoon behind Paul Chan Group, confirmed on Thursday that he owned land on Koh Tonsay but refused to elaborate, adding that he would finalise and publicise his “master plan” in two weeks.

Lim Sina Investment, who Yuthy said has yet to begin its development, could not be reached for comment.

Despite Yuthy’s assurances that all heads of families were being fairly compensated, the ambiguity surrounding what constituted a single family unit meant that some islanders said they had received nothing. 

Seng Hourng, a 26-year-old seaweed farmer who came to the island in 2010 to live closer to her husband’s mother, said Paul Chan Group gave money to neighbouring families while ignoring hers.

An old barge prepares to ship building materials from the mainland
An old barge prepares to ship building materials from the mainland. Charlotte Pert

While the compensation money, said Yuthy, was given to all households, villagers didn’t believe it was distributed correctly.

“We didn’t get mad with the families who got money, but I got angry with the company since I didn’t get anything,” she said, adding that some neighbouring relatives who received compensation shared their money with her. 

Ly Houng, a 51-year-old seaweed farmer who first moved to Koh Tonsay in the early 1970s, said he received $4,000 to relocate to another part of the island. While he said he was content with the money, he feared it wouldn’t be the last time he is moved.

“I’m concerned they will evict my family to another place beside this island. If they evicted me to the mainland, I would lose my job,” he said, adding that he shared his compensation money with his sons, who received no payout.

While development on the island has long been expected by locals and developers alike, different plans have been proposed over the years. In 2008, then-Kep municipal governor Has Sareth announced plans for a five-star casino and golf course on the island. 

A 2012 report from rights NGO Adhoc linked the island’s development to tycoon Try Pheap, whose large-scale logging operations have come under fire from conservationists, though Yuthy this week denied Pheap had anything to do with current development plans.

In 2013, the government changed its tone on Kep’s development, promising that tourism in the province would be promoted as a quiet alternative to the boisterousness of Sihanoukville.

The beach has so far remained untouched by development plans
The beach has so far remained untouched by development plans. Charlotte Pert

While Som Chenda, director of Kep’s tourism department, said he didn’t know of the specific plans for Koh Tonsay, he reiterated intentions to make Kep a “natural” destination. 

On the island’s main beach this week, life continued as normal, with dozens of visitors sunbathing and swimming in the warm water. Yuthy said the beach, where six families run rustic bungalows and restaurants, still belonged to the government and would not be affected by the development currently under way.

“I don’t know in the future about the six families who are in the area of government responsibility because we need to agree with CDC to decide on that,” he said.

The bungalow owners were cautiously optimistic, saying that they had heard of no plans to develop the beach. Chhoun Ream, whose family has lived on the island for 70 years, said she was fairly confident the developers would stick to their own part of the island.

“We have talked and agreed on the border with each other,” she said, adding that she was concerned new resorts would steal business.

Ream, whose family made a meagre living fishing from row boats before the influx of tourists around 2000, said she could not fathom a life away from Koh Tonsay.

Industrial machinery has been ferried over to raze the ground
Industrial machinery has been ferried over to raze the ground. Charlotte Pert

“I was born here and lived with this environment so long, so I could not adapt to live in a new place,” she said.

Kheng Srey, a 34-year-old bungalow owner whose family has lived on the island since before the Khmer Rouge era, said she didn’t foresee an upcoming eviction but was nonetheless braced for the possibility.

“We are a community, and we have lived here for a long time and are citizens of this island,” said Srey, who, like the rest of the island’s residents, doesn’t own a land title.

She would move if the compensation was enough, but added that she wouldn’t rule out a protest if she felt cheated.

“If it is not reasonable, we could not accept to move,” she said.

Both local and international visitors on the beach expressed dismay at the idea of the island being developed with expensive resorts. 

Srun Kimsreng, a monk visiting from Phnom Penh, said he appreciated the island’s accessibility for ordinary Cambodians. 

“I came here because I wanted to see it with my own eyes – I’ve never been to an island,” he said, adding that he liked the views and ocean wind.

Melanie Schalhorst, a 34-year-old tourist from Germany, said she appreciated the island’s rustic, underdeveloped qualities. 

“It’s really a charming place, and yes, I know it’s built only for tourists, but I still think it brings you closer to the people who actually live here, and everything else is very Westernised,” she said. 

But while holiday makers will likely be making trips to Koh Tonsay’s bungalow-lined beach for the foreseeable future, nothing is certain, as two firms and the government divvy up an island populated by residents with no official land titles.

Back at the seaweed farm, Soeng Pov said it wasn’t her place to argue.

“This is a company and government plan, so we have to listen to them, as we are the villagers,” she said.

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