Tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group company received 9,968 hectares inside Botum Sakor National park in Koh Kong province, according to a January 25 sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and published earlier this month.
It is the latest giveaway inside Botum Sakor National Park, where more than 60% of the original protected area has been privatized through concessions, according to data from human rights NGO Licadho. While Cambodia has technically had a moratorium since 2012 on economic land concessions (ELC) for industrial agriculture, there have been several large-scale concessions revealed this year alone, says Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s outreach director.
The Royal Group concession, granted through the Environment Ministry, is not officially classified as an ELC but the distinction is in name only, Piloge notes.
“Whether labeled an ELC or not, the thousands of hectares now being granted by the state to private actors risks fueling a new wave of land dispossession across the country,” Pilorge said.
Royal Group received 8,631 hectares to form a special economic zone inside the national park in 2021, which has led to deforestation and displacement of more than 100 families, a Mongabay investigation found.
Last month, it was revealed that Koh Kong Rubber, a company linked to Tycoon Ly Yong Phat’s son Ly Phoonrat, received 6,234 hectares inside Botum Sakor via a January sub decree.
As the Environment Ministry oversees a vast expansion of protected areas, Botum Sakor is one of a handful of downsized national parks. The 171,250 hectare park had 27,355 hectares removed, mostly overlapping with the Union Development Group’s 36,000 hectare 2008 concession.
Im Rachana, a spokesperson for the Agriculture Ministry, which oversees economic land concessions, said the moratorium on economic land concessions remained in effect even though the government awarded a 5,000 hectare economic land concession last year. Rachana directed questions about Royal Group’s concession to the Environment Ministry.
Environment Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra and Koh Kong Governor Mithuna Poutong did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Ministry of Economy and Finance spokesperson Chhay Rattanak said he did not know what the Royal Group was doing in Botum Sakor and that the topic was not relevant to his ministry, though the sub-decree stated the concession was granted in “collaboration” with his ministry.
Suwanna Gauntlett, founder and CEO of Wildlife Alliance, a conservation NGO with a long history of working in Botum Sakor, did not respond to requests for comment.
Royal Group did not respond to a request for comment.
While most of Royal Group’s 2021 concession remains undeveloped, some of the land is intended for a 700 megawatt coal-fired power plant.
Some people impacted by that concession told CamboJA they have still not found a solution, despite promises from their commune authorities.
One Koh Kong resident, who asked not to be identified for safety concerns, said that five hectares of her farmland were taken away and given to The Royal Group after the 2021 concession was issued. She said that she owned and worked on the land for roughly 10 years and it had been her main source of income.
She said she sent numerous petitions to the Koh Kong Provincial Administration, the Environment Ministry, the Land Management Ministry, and the Interior Ministry but there was still no resolution and she wanted to receive fair compensation from authorities. She said she hoped to receive new land to use.
“Authorities said they would resolve the land issue for the people after the  commune elections, but so far there has been no solution,” she said. “They just made the locals feel calm and then they did not do what they promised. I lost my stable job as a farmer after losing my farm, which was the only source of income for my family and supported my children’s education.”
Thmor Sar Commune Chief Ek Kuon told a CamboJA on Thursday that he did not know about Royal Group’s plans for its latest concession.
Kuon said that three villages in his commune were affected by Royal Group’s 2021 concession but was unsure how many people had received compensation. Any former resident who had a land title from 2010 could receive compensation based on their land size and housing, but people who had taken state land in more recent years could not get ownership or compensation, he added.
Ngeth Sinap, the coordinator for the NGO Adhoc in Koh Kong province, said before land is given to a development project, a thorough analysis of the project’s potential effects on the local population, the environment, public health, and water quality should be conducted.
“It is an important point to properly consider the impact on citizens and the environment,” he said.