- Cambodia’s Botum Sakor National Park continues to be carved up and its ostensibly protected land awarded to private developers with close links to the country’s ruling party.
- In the latest development, approved Jan. 25 but only announced Aug. 14, local conglomerate Royal Group was awarded a 9,968-hectare (24,631-acre) concession that adjoins another land parcel it received in the park in 2021.
- This leaves Botum Sakor with 20,000 hectares (less than 50,000 acres) of land that’s not in private hands, or just one-ninth of its original area when it was declared a national park in 1993.
- Civil society groups have expressed concern over the lack of transparency surrounding the new concessions being issued in Cambodia’s protected areas, especially when the recipients are tycoons with reputations for illegal logging, forced evictions and environmental destruction.
PHNOM PENH — The Cambodian government has awarded another large swath of Botum Sakor National Park to local conglomerate Royal Group, carving out yet more land from this ostensibly protected area to hand over to private developers.
The awarding of the 9,968 hectares (24,631 acres) was approved on Jan. 25 this year, but the decision was only made public on Aug. 14 in the Royal Gazette, a quarterly published collection of new laws and announcements from the government. The announcement comes after a slew of new developments have swept through Botum Sakor, prompting fear from residents and concern among civil society groups about the fate of the rapidly shrinking national park.
Situated on the southwest coast of Cambodia in Koh Kong province, Botum Sakor has been largely stripped of the Melaleuca forest that once covered the park. Of the initial 182,342 hectares (450,577 acres) that was designated protected in 1993, today scarcely 20,000 hectares (less than 50,000 acres) remains unoccupied, with more than 160,000 hectares (more than 395,000 acres) having been privatized — mostly for wealthy investors. Satellite data from Global Forest Watch show the park lost more than a quarter of its primary forest cover between 2002 and 2022, and preliminary data for 2023 show the clearing has continued unabated, including fresh incursions into previously intact habitat.
In September 2021, Royal Group, one of Cambodia’s biggest conglomerates, was already awarded an 8,631-hectare (21,323-acre) concession inside Botum Sakor and has since set about leveling the forests to make way for a new special economic zone (SEZ). The new 9,968-hectare concession adjoins partially with the plot awarded for the creation of the SEZ, but mostly covers a wide expanse of mostly untouched primary forest.
When asked about the newly announced Royal Group concession, then-environment minister Say Samal would only say that it had “been there a long time” and declined to answer questions about whether the park was still worth conserving or whether the new concessions in the park violated Cambodia’s 2012 moratorium on new economic land concessions.
Naly Pilorge, outreach director at local human rights NGO LICADHO, expressed concern over the lack of transparency surrounding the new concessions being issued in Cambodia’s protected areas.
“This massive land reclassification is particularly worrying in the context of the recent reemergence of large-scale land concessions,” she said. “In which large tracts of state land — including land inside ‘protected’ areas — is granted to well-connected tycoons.”
This comes as the Ministry of Environment is reassessing and redesigning the country’s entire protected area system. More than 140,000 hectares (346,000 acres) of Botum Sakor National Park are still listed as protected under the latest amendments, but only about a seventh of that figure remains public property.
The demarcation borders of Royal Group’s newest concession, which reporters visited early this year, were cut through the forest in Botum Sakor National Park in early December 2022, more than a month before the subdecree that awarded the company its latest concession was signed.
Royal Group’s mark on Cambodia’s natural resources
Royal Group’s chairman, Kith Meng — himself a Neak Oknha or venerable tycoon — is a longtime political ally of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and has a history of allegations of environmental vandalism across the country.
Meng was allegedly involved in illegal logging operations carried out around the reservoir of the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam in Stung Treng province. Royal Group had been partly funding the construction of the dam in 2013, seemingly at the request of the government after Vietnamese investors backed out of the project.
The dam went on to inundate villages occupied mostly by Indigenous communities in 2017, leading to the displacement of nearly 5,000 people who had lived alongside the Sesan River for generations.
Meng’s alleged involvement in logging reportedly saw more forest cleared than was officially allowed, with some activists at the time accusing Meng and his associates of trafficking the timber to Vietnam.
Late last year, Royal Group began a feasibility study on a 1,400-megawatt mega-dam on the main channel of the Mekong River in Stung Treng province, prompting an outcry from local communities and conservationists. However, it’s unclear whether the project will actually go ahead.
Royal Group’s portfolio includes media companies, internet service providers and arguably Cambodia’s most prominent telecoms company, as well as sprouting finance, transportation, hospitality, real estate and energy divisions in recent years.
Royal Group’s various energy companies have dabbled in hydropower, coal and transmission infrastructure, although the 700-MW coal plant that Meng received land in Botum Sakor to develop was never built.
A similar story is playing out on Koh Rong, an island within a marine protected area just off the coast of Botum Sakor, that was handed to Royal Group by the government for the development of a multimillion-dollar resort. Despite the master plan being published in 2010, the project remains unfinished, although the company has repeatedly been involved in forced evictions, with many business owners on the island demanding compensation.
Royal Group had not responded to emailed enquiries sent by Mongabay as of the time this story was published.
When reporters called the phone number listed in commerce records, a woman who identified herself as Socheata answered and confirmed that she worked for Royal Group, but could not give details about the company’s projects in Botum Sakor. Socheata directed enquiries to Thomas Pianka, vice president of Royal Group’s energy division. However, Pianka told reporters he didn’t know about the company’s projects in Botum Sakor.
As such, it’s difficult to know what Royal Group plans to do with this new concession or whether it will represent an expansion of the SEZ being built on an adjoining plot in the protected park. The subdecrees that award these concessions also don’t detail the length of the lease on the land, although typically concessionaires in Cambodia enjoy a 99-year hold on their concessions.
An almost identical scenario recently played out last month, with Koh Kong Rubber acquiring a 6,234-hectare (15,405-acre) concession inside Botum Sakor that will now border Royal Group’s latest 9,968-hectare concession. Again, that subdecree was signed in January, but only made public in July, and again, the demarcation boundaries were cut before the subdecree was signed.
Koh Kong Rubber is also owned by the family of another lifelong CPP supporter: Ly Yong Phat, a tycoon who shares Meng’s reputation for illegal logging, forced evictions and environmental destruction. The rubber plantation, which is owned by Ly Yong Phat’s son, Ly Phoonrat — himself awarded the honorary tycoon title of Oknha this year — has not yet began clearing the forest it was awarded.
However, conservationists previously condemned the decision, voicing concerns over the impact that forest clearance would have on the dwindling habitat of the park’s elephant population, while communities said they fear that their relatively insecure land tenure will be no match for the political connections of investors currently consuming Botum Sakor. Neither Koh Kong Rubber nor Phoonrat could be reached for comment.