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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Chinese firms increase investment in Cambodia at cost of environment

It was once the unspoiled jungle home for tigers, elephants, bears and gibbons. But today Botum Sakor National Park in southwest Cambodia is fast disappearing to accommodate a much less endangered species: the Chinese gambler.

“This was all forest once,” says Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, an environmental watchdog based in the capital, Phnom Penh, gesturing across a near-treeless landscape.

“But then the government sold the land to rich men.”

He means Tianjin Union Development Group, a real-estate company from northern China, which is transforming 340 sq km of Botum Sakor into a city-sized gambling resort for “extravagant feasting and revelry,” its website says. A 64-km highway, now almost complete, will cut a four-lane swathe through mostly virgin forest.

National parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Cambodia, an impoverished country known for its ancient temples and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, could soon vanish entirely as deep-pocketed Chinese investors accelerate a secretive sell-off of protected areas to private companies, warns Chut Wutty and other activists.

The land sales also point to another trend: the expansion of Chinese economic interests in Southeast Asia’s undeveloped frontiers, which comes at a delicate time as tensions simmer over China’s sovereignty claims in the disputed South China Sea and the United States vows to re-engage with the region.

Last year, the Cambodian government granted so-called economic land concessions to scores of companies to develop 7,631 sq km of land, most of it in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, according to research by the respected Cambodia Human Rights and Development Organisation.

The area of concessions granted has risen six-fold between 2010 and 2011, partly a reflection of booming Indochina trade as China’s economic influence spreads deeper into Southeast Asia. Foreign conservation groups in the country have remained silent about the sell-off for fear of wrecking their relationship with the government of mercurial Prime Minister Hun Sen. But Cambodians dislodged from concession areas are starting to find their voices.

Fishing families in Botum Sakor say that Union Group is using strongarm tactics to relocate them deep inland.
“It’s been my land since my grandparents’ generation,” says Srey Khmao, 68, from Thmar Sar. “I lived peacefully there until Union Group threatened the villagers and told them to remove their belongings.”

Such protests could ratchet up anti-Chinese sentiment in Cambodia, where China is both the largest foreign investor and source of foreign aid. That aid, often in the form of no-strings-attached infrastructure projects, has made Hun Sen less reliant on Western donors, who generally demand greater transparency and respect for human rights.

It has also eroded the influence of foreign conservation groups in Cambodia, many of whom work in the same protected areas now being sold off. Their criticism has remained muted for fear Hun Sen will do what he did to British environmental watchdog Global Witness in 2005, and kick them out.

“The days of donor-dependency are over," says a foreign conservationist working in Cambodia, who asked not to be identified. “Much more money is coming into this country through direct investment, especially from Chinese companies, so the carrot-and-stick incentive that NGOs might have had 10 years ago isn’t as powerful these days."

Land-grabbing, illegal logging and forced evictions have long been common in Cambodia. But by granting land concessions, the government has effectively legalized these practices in the country’s last remaining wilderness, say activists.

Companies from Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries are also exploiting the land sell-off, mainly to develop rubber plantations and other agribusinesses. But the most lucrative projects —mining for gold and other minerals — are dominated by the Chinese, says the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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