Thousands of villagers in southern Cambodia’s Kampot province are fearing loss of their fishing rights amid plans by a company linked to the ruling party to develop large stretches of a coastal mangrove forest for a port, satellite city, and golf course, residents said Thursday.
Local residents say they will resist plans by the Ching Kor Import Export Co. Ltd to fill in access to the mangroves and beach, on which they depend for their survival, Prek Tnout commune chief Ouk Sovannarith told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“They are very worried and have protested to the authorities and company over the investment project in [our commune] in monthly meetings and whenever public information sessions are held,” he said.
Though Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has promised not to allow any private company to fill in the beach at Prek Tnout, villagers still fear loss of their jobs because company officials continue to pressure them to agree to company plans, he said.
Most residents of the community are poor and have taken out loans from banks to invest in their fishing business, he said, adding that they rely now on steady work to pay back their debts.
“Right now, the people here can make 50,000 to 100,000 to 200,000 riel [U.S. $12.50, 25, to 50] per day by fishing,” he said.
Thousands of residents of three Prek Tnout commune villages—Prek Tnout, Chong Houn, and Trepeang Ropov—have depended on family fishing for their survival for many generations, local fisherman Mitt Chamrern said.
“I won’t know what to do if they fill in the beach,” he said. “Only young people will be able to work for the company [if development plans go ahead]. Old people won’t be able to do it,” he said.
“I can make some money now from fishing for my family to live on, but if they take away the beach, my fishing business will be lost,” he said.
Plans still under review
Company plans are still under study, though, Kampot provincial governor Chieu Tay said, adding that government authorities won’t do anything to harm the livelihood of commune residents.
“Nothing is official yet, so don’t worry so much,” he said. “The government will not do anything that affects the people. All of this is still under study, and we’ll know more for sure when the study is concluded.”
Calls seeking comment from the Ching Kor Import Export Co. Ltd—owned by Srey Keo Maly, a former senator of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party—rang unanswered this week on a line displayed on the company website.
Cambodian government spokesperson Phai Siphan meanwhile denied knowledge of the investment project when reached by phone for comment.
“Social and environmental impact assessments must be conducted in order to see what impacts a project will have,” said Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheaktra, speaking to RFA on May 12.
“Then, solutions will be offered to minimize the project’s social and environmental impacts,” he said.
“If the company fills up the beach, what can these people do, and where can they go, to earn a living?” asked Yun Phally, Kampot provincial coordinator for the Cambodian rights group Adhoc.
“If the beach is taken away by the company, their family finances will be ruined, and they won’t be able to repay their banks.”
Many already forced out
Hundreds of families in Kampot’s Chong Houn community have already lost their fishing areas to the Try Pheap Group Co. Ltd—owned by powerful Hun Sen ally Try Pheap—and have had to move to Prek Tnout themselves to find work, he said.
The Try Pheap Group, which began work on its own seaport in 2017, has already built a wall two kilometers long along the seashore to prevent villagers from entering the area, sources told RFA in earlier reports.
Land disputes are a bitter problem in Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Richard Finney.