Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Rights groups worried about Bokor city demarcation, land clearings

Screenshots from the Mother Nature video reveal large tracts of land cleared within the Bokor National Park in Kampot province.
Screenshots from the Mother Nature video reveal large tracts of land cleared within the Bokor National Park in Kampot province.

The government has created a new Bokor city within the Preah Monivong Bokor National Park, which is the location of local tycoon Sok Kong’s mega-development projects, resulting in an outcry from environmental rights groups.

A sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on March 16 created the new city by creating three new communes in the existing Chhuk district: Boeung Tuok, Koh Touch and Prek Tnoat.

Influential tycoon Sok Kong is currently developing a mega housing project, called the Bokor City Development Project, within the Bokor National Park. The businessperson was given 20,000 hectares in the 150,000-hectare park and is slated to be valued at $1 billion.

The national park currently houses the Sokha Hotel and Casino and renovated buildings and relics from when the mountain was a French colonial retreat in the 1920s, which was later then revived by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s as a summer palace.

Say Sinol, director of the Department of Tourism in Kampot, supported the creation of the new city and said the development would slightly affect the area but bring a lot more tourists to the province. 

“It has some impacts but is not serious,” he said.

The Mother Nature movement, a group of activists advocating environmental rights, released a video in late December showing large swathes of land clearings on the Bokor mountain for thousands of villas and condominiums, all developed by Sok Kong’s Sokha Real Estate.

The environmental group said the devastation of the environment was symbolic of the exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources by corporations.

The Tourism Department’s Sinol didn’t agree with Mother Nature’s assessment of the environmental impact the project will have on the national park, claiming the government had studied the potential impact.

“It is their business, so I do not want to comment,” Sinol said, referring to Mother Nature.

The Bokor National Park has seen large swathes of it’s tree cover cleared to make way for the development of a new city, December 2018. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the director of Mother Nature, said the Bokor city project looks like just another “scam by the government” disguised under the facade of “development.” 

 “The main aim is to privatize part of the Bokor National Park,” he said.

He said the project would provide economic benefits to “a few well-connected individuals” while putting Cambodia’s ecology in danger.

“But judging by what we have seen time and again, elsewhere this is most likely going to turn out to be an outright scam, one where little of what is seen in the ‘master plan’ shown by the government and private companies actually fructifies,” he said via Telegram.

Mother Nature de-registered itself as an NGO in 2017 and is now a movement of environmental activists. Their activists have increasingly been targeted by the government – three members were on trial in Phnom Penh on Wednesday for alleged incitement.

Vit Vathana, Kampot’s provincial spokesperson, rejected Mother Nature’s accusations and said the new city would serve the public and improve the areas economic and development prospects.

“There is no impact on the environment because we have just reformed the administrative management,” Vathana said. 

“Mother Nature has just raised their opinion which is baseless and without evidence,” he added.

Suy Thea, provincial director of the Environment Department, could not be reached for comment.

Environment Ministry Spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said that the government had thoroughly considered the impacts on the environment and conservation of natural resources at Bokor National Park.

“Please don’t be confused by comments from uneducated people on the establishment of Bokor city,” he said.

Yun Phally, the provincial coordinator at rights group ADHOC, said the government should conduct a thorough study of the social and environmental impacts of the project, especially on the forest cover within Bokor National Park and local fishing stock.

“The [potential] impact is related to the forest cover and impacts family fishing activities after land reclamation into the sea,” he said.

The website for Sok Kong’s real estate business, Sokha Real Estate, shows the company’s development plan, which was being undertaken by another Sok Kong business, the Sokha Hotel Group. The first project to be developed will be the Borey Amret Thansur, with more than 4,200 three-floor flat houses.

The second will be the Borey Morokot Thansur, which will include an unspecified number of villas, and the massive 600-hectare Crown Estates, where there will be “5,585 luxury villas, 15,952 flats and various land plots for the construction of villas and apartments.”