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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cambodia approves titanium mine in world's 'most threatened forest'

Asian elephants in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Alliance.

The Cambodian government has approved a mine that environmentalists and locals fear will harm wildlife, pollute rivers, and put an end to a burgeoning ecotourism in one of the last pristine areas of what Conservation International (CI) recently dubbed 'the world's most threatened forest'. Prime Minister, Hun Sen, approved the mine concession to the United Khmer Group, granting them 20,400 hectares for strip mining in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains. The biodiverse, relatively intact forests of the Cardamom Mountains are a part of the Indo-Burma forest hotspot of Southeast Asia, which CI put at the top of their list of the world's most threatened forests. With only 5% of habitat remaining, the forest was found to be more imperiled than the Amazon, the Congo, and even the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia.

"We recognize that development is essential to Cambodia’s future, but that development must be conducted in a coordinated matter that respects conservation initiatives," says Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO of Wildlife Alliance in a press release. Wildlife Alliance has worked extensively in Cambodia for nearly a decade, including with the village of Chi Phat in the Cardamom Mountains to establish ecotourism. Many local residents gave up logging and poaching to focus on tourism efforts. For its part, Wildlife Alliance invested over half a million US dollars to build infrastructure. The area was even named among the 'World's Top 10 Regions for 2010' by Lonely Planet. However, villagers fear all their efforts will be ruined by the mine.

"Committee members did acknowledge that the presence of the mine in the area could mean the possibility of new roads or bridges but that those positives would be outweighed by the pollution they fear will pour into to the rivers near the village, and that the mine would drive away tourists and consequently threaten the jobs they have secured through ecotourism," John Maloy, Wildlife Alliance's Chief Communication Officer, told He said the village's consensus was, "'if they do mining in Chi Phat, everything will disappear.'"

An Eld's deer rutting. This Southeast Asian deer, surviving in the Cardamom Mountains, is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Alliance.

Incredibly rich in wildlife, the Cardamom Mountains is home to Malayan sun bears, Indochinese tigers, and pileated gibbons in addition to 250 species of birds. According to Wildlife Alliance 70 threatened species live in the area. Conservationists say the mine could particularly imperil freshwater species through pollution such as the Critically Endangered Siamese crocodiles. In addition, the mine is slated to sit directly on a migration route for the largest surviving population of Asian elephants in Cambodia.

While the United Khmer Group has promised riches from the mine to the tune of $1.3 billion dollars a year, Wildlife Alliance and the Cambodian newspaper Phnom Penh Post have questioned the company's projections. According to the Phnom Penh Post, the company was citing prices for titanium that were three times current market price and was projecting a big haul of titanium without conducting a comprehensive study of the ore deposit.

"Without scientific research to prove the economic viability of the proposed mine, bulldozing the rainforest is simply destructive and does not even make good business sense," Gauntlett says in a press release.

Mitigating Damage

Despite their opposition to the mine, Wildlife Alliance says that if the mine ultimately goes ahead it is more than open to working with United Khmer Group to ensure that the mine does as little damage as possible, both to the local people and the forest ecosystem.

"Now that approval has been given to the mine, Wildlife Alliance is calling on the United Khmer Group to work closely with the Forestry Administration, conservation groups, and local communities to ensure that it mitigates the environmental impacts of its mining efforts," Maloy says.

Maloy explains that there are many ways in which the mining company can avoid doing unnecessary harm, including outside monitoring: "it will be important United Khmer Group to accept monitoring by the Forestry Administration and conservation groups to ensure that they are clearing forest land in accordance with the law and that only areas that are to be mined in the near future are clear cut, preserving as much forest as possible."

In addition, Maloy says that the company should abide by its promise to mine in sections, and work with locals and NGOs to come up with a road route that doesn't push industrial traffic into the village.

Finally Maloy commends United Khmer Group's promise to reforest areas after they are mined, however they must do this correctly if the replanted forest isn't to fail.

"It is imperative that […] they are willing to pay the expense of enriching the soil that remains before planting trees, otherwise there is no chance that the forest will regenerate," he says. "Once again, this is an opportunity for the firm to work closely with the Forestry Administration and conservation groups—Wildlife Alliance already has an extensive reforestation program in the area with a large indigenous tree nursery located immediately outside the proposed mine area. So options are already available if the mining firm is willing to reach out."

According to the Phnom Penh Post, the titanium mine may only be the beginning. Reportedly, China is planning three to four additional mine in the Cardamom Mountains spanning some 100,000 hectares.

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World Vision responds as thousands displaced due Thai-Cambodia border conflict

More than 30,000 villagers living near the borders of Thailand and Cambodia were affected when the fighting erupted around the Preah Vihear temple in Preah Vihear province. The exchange of fire started on the first week of February and lasted for four days.

"World Vision is concerned about the affected families – especially the children and babies – who are still living in shelters, afraid to go home for fear of their safety. I hope that both governments will be able to resolve this issue peacefully and soon so that people don't suffer needlessly," said Esther Halim, Country Director of WV Cambodia.

In Cambodia, evacuees are staying in pagodas, schools, and rice fields. Children are getting sick with diarrhoea and fever. Sanitation is a great concern as evacuees just use nearby areas for defecation.

"My heart goes out to the children, who in this case, came from the most vulnerable families. The evacuees are faced with lack of access to safe water, latrines and proper shelter. World Vision will do its best to serve their urgent needs and we are appealing for USD 112,000 for our response," said Halim.

In Thailand, several areas along the border were impacted as many communities from Si Sa Ket province fled to these areas. Most of the 21,000 evacuees were sheltered in temporary shelters set up by the government.

"World Vision serves all people regardless of political affiliation or cultural heritage. Our focus is on the well-being of children and their families," said Chitra Thumborisuth, National Director of World Vision Foundation of Thailand.

"In response to a request by the local government, we distributed more than 1,000 emergency kits in two government shelters." These contained rice, canned fish, cooking oil, water, noodles, fish sauce, sanitary napkin, toothpaste and mosquito protection lotion.

In Cambodia, World Vision took part in a joint assessment other NGOs and the government before mounting its relief operation to meet the identified needs of the evacuees.

"We have already distributed more than 400 family and hygiene kits and we will continue providing aid in the next few days," added Halim.

Each family received two cooking pots, toothbrushes and toothpaste, plates, spoons, soap powder, sanitary napkins, bath soap, mosquito killer, 20 litres of purified drinking water and a plastic family tent. World Vision Cambodia will also be setting up latrines and temporary shelters.

As part of its child protection interventions, World Vision has deployed its child protection officers and outreach workers to set up Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) in some of the evacuation sites in Cambodia and raise awareness on the risks to children in this situation.

At the CFS, the children will learn how to clean themselves, the environment and they will also play games. Through the CFS, the community will also be mobilised on sanitation.

Currently, most of the 21,000 evacuees in Thailand are now returning home while thousands still remains in the temporary government shelters. Classes have also resumed on Monday, though tension remains high. Thumborisuth said that World Vision Foundation Thailand is continuously monitoring the situation on the Thai side of the border.

"The local government is well equipped and has enough resources for now to provide for the needs of the remaining evacuees. We are praying for reconciliation and the normality of relations. Our organisation will continue supporting affected children and families and we are ready to respond immediately in the unfortunate event that the crossfire resumes. Villagers are still afraid of what may happen in the coming days," she added.

Meanwhile, much uncertainty remains for the evacuees in Cambodia. The displaced families are likely to remain in camps for some time.

While the Preah Vihear temple was awarded by the International Court of Justice to Cambodia, a small area surrounding the temple has always been contentious, with claims from the Thai side that that area has never been fully demarcated. Both sides have always retained troops on the border and clashes have erupted intermittently over the years.

Media contacts:

World Vision Cambodia:

Dinah Dimalanta, Ministry Quality Director – Mobile No.: (+855) 128002

Vibol Chab, Operations Director – Mobile No.: (+855) 12333097

WV Foundation of Thailand:

Chitra Thumborisuth, National Director – Mobile No.: +66814834513

Renate Vuuren, Communications Manager – Mobile No.: +66823889908
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Thai, Cambodia soldiers clash in fresh border skirmish

Thai and Cambodian authorities say fresh fighting broke out between their soldiers, with each side once again blaming the other. The new skirmish came shortly after the United Nations Security Council urged the two countries to impose a ceasefire around the disputed border, which saw heavy fighting earlier this month.

The Thai military on Tuesday said Cambodian soldiers in the early morning attacked a border post, injuring five soldiers - one of them seriously.

Thai military spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhapatipak said at least one grenade was thrown at the post and Thai soldiers fired back with rifles. He said they were expecting attacks after the United Nations Security Council declined Cambodia's request to send peacekeeping troops to the area.

"We believe that the leadership of the Cambodia were not happy with that result and they will try to do anything that [is] provocative in order to have the Thai soldier retaliate," said Werachon.

However, Phay Siphan, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, denies his country’s troops fired first. He said Thai soldiers attacked first.

"Last night from 10:30, I mean in the evening, to 5:20 in the morning, 11 grenades have been thrown by Thai (soldiers)," said Phay.

Phay said no Cambodian soldiers were injured and they did not retaliate.

Fighting broke out two weeks ago in a disputed border area near a 900-year-old Khmer Hindu temple called Preah Vihear in Cambodia and Phra Viharn in Thailand.

Thai and Cambodian militaries exchanged heavy artillery and machine gun fire, killing several people and sending thousands fleeing the border.

Both sides blame the other for starting the fighting. Cambodia wants international help to prevent further fighting, while Thailand says the issue should be resolved bilaterally.

On Monday, the foreign ministers of the two countries met with the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council urged them to implement a permanent ceasefire and to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to end the dispute.

ASEAN foreign ministers are to discuss the issue next week in Jakarta.

Tensions first erupted in 2008 when the temple, which is in Cambodia - but with its main entrance in Thailand - was listed as a U.N. World Heritage site.

Thai nationalists objected, some of them claiming the temple is in Thailand, and both sides began building up military forces in the area, leading to occasional skirmishes.
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After UN Session, Asean Next for Border Solution

Press Encounter: H.E. Mr. Hor Namhong, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia.

Officials say Cambodia will respect a statement issued by the UN Security Council on the border issue late Monday, after the foreign minister addressed the body in New York on Monday.

Following a session in New York, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a peaceful resolution and encouraging the regional forum of Asean as a mediator.

The Security Council called on both sides to “display maximum restraint” along the border, where deadly clashes erupted less than two weeks ago. Security Council members also urged the establishment of a permanent ceasefire.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Tuesday the UN statement reflected much of what Cambodian wanted from Monday’s session, especially highlighting the need for third-party arbitration.

Thailand has continually said it wants bilateral discussions to solve the border dispute, but Cambodian officials say two-way talks have failed to produce a resolution.

The foreign ministers of Asean are scheduled to meet Feb. 22, where Koy Kuong said Cambodia hopes to move the process forward with Asean and Thailand.

Monday’s session at the Security Council was clouded by more reports of shooting on the border Sunday and Monday night, with both sides accusing the other of firing but no casualties reported.
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Little Information Known About Oil, Gas: Survey

Eight years after Chevron found crude oil off Cambodia’s coast, the American company has yet to begin full production. In remarks in April, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he wants the oil giant to begin production by 2012 or risk losing its rights.

A new survey suggests that many of Cambodia’s smaller business entrepreneurs are not fully aware of the development of the extractive industry.

The survey, initiated by Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency and issued Tuesday, found that out of 548 companies, most had little knowledge of the sector and that information was lacking in both the media and the business community.

However, observers say development of these resources, especially in oil and gas, will require good management and will affect many businesses.

“There are few that know where petroleum is being explored, what companies have obtained licenses,” said Neou Seiha, who led a survey for the Economic Institute of Cambodia.

Of the small- and medium-sized enterprises surveyed, about 70 percent said revenue from the extractive industries would help reduce poverty. But many respondents were also worried about corruption and a lack of systems to fight it.

Of those surveyed, 38 percent said the government would be able to manage the industry, compared to 31 percent who disagreed and 31 percent who preferred not to answer.

Cambodia expects to have oil flowing by the end of 2012, with revenues expected to reach $1.7 billion.

The transparency survey found that entrepreneurs want to see good management of revenue to improve infrastructure and to alleviate energy costs and taxes.

Mam Sambath, chairman of Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency, said Cambodia could benefit from the extraction of natural resources if they are properly managed.

Critics have warned that Cambodia could succumb to an “oil curse,” where high revenues will not find their way to citizens but will instead fund an economic elite.

Sman Tiet, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, told VOA Khmer such a “curse” could result from many factors, but now was not yet the time to discuss them.

Glenn Kendall, an extractive industries adviser for UNDP, said it is still “early days” for Cambodia’s production of oil and gas.
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