Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Sokha group clearing Bokor National Park forests for massive housing projects

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.

An environmental group said large swathes of the Preah Monivong Bokor National Park in Kampot province were being cleared to make way for multiple development projects, with government officials saying the projects were approved after taking into account their environmental impact.

The Mother Nature movement, a group of activists advocating for preservation of natural resources, released a video in late December using drone footage of Bokor National Park, showing large sections of the forest razed and ongoing construction activity. The environmental group said a masterplan for the national park showed that three housing projects were approved within the national park under the Bokor City Development Project.

“We suspect that this project is just an excuse for a group of individuals to continue exploiting Cambodia’s natural resources for their own benefit,” said an activist in the video, who had their identity concealed.

“What you are seeing is just a small part of a much larger plan. Other large swathes of the park are also scheduled to be cleared off,” the activist said.

After being designated a national park in 1993, influential tycoon and owner of the Sokimex group Sok Kong was given a 99-year lease for 20,000 of the 150,000-hectare park for an allegedly $1 billion development project in Kampot province.

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.

The website for Sok Kong’s real estate business, Sokha Real Estate, shows the 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 finally the massive 600-hectare Crown Estates, where there will be “5,585 luxury villas, 15,952 flats and various land lots for the construction of villas and apartments.”

A brochure for these developments contain photographs featuring the clearing and preparing of land for construction, as well as claims that it will be located in a “commercial zone.” It also lists a fourth project, Borey Mount Seaview Bokor, but no details have been listed on the website.

At the end of the video, the unidentified Mother Nature activist posed two questions for the government in the video: firstly, asking about any state revenue generated from the concession and if there were assurances that the remaining forestland will be preserved.

Officials from the Ministry of Economy and Finance and Ministry of Environment referred questions about revenue collection from the concession to each other, with spokespersons for each ministry refusing to answer the questions.

The activist’s identity is likely concealed because Mother Nature supporters have been routinely targeted by the government for their activism, some being convicted for their activities. Mother Nature member Long Kunthea was arrested in September for attempting to conduct a one-person march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to protest the filing of Boeung Tamok in northern Phnom Penh.

Other members of the group – Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey, and Thon Ratha – were arrested for the plans to advocate and raise awareness over the filling of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok. Their arrest coincided with the detention of other youth activists who were protesting the jailing of prominent unionist Rong Chhun, who was sent to pre-trial detention in July for comments he made about Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.

Sok Kong could not be reached for comment. His personal secretary, Seng Chanthou, said the residential arm of the group was run by Sok Kong’s son, but declined to share his contact and said Sok Kong’s son was currently in the United States.

Vit Vathana, Kampot Provincial Hall spokesperson, would only confirm that the government had granted a 99-year lease in the Bokor National Park and that any development activity would not impact the protected forests.

“There is no impact because [Sokha] have only developed inside their master plan,” he said, referring further questions to the Environment Ministry and company representatives.

Environment Ministry Spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said, via telegram, that ministry officials had conducted an environment impact assessment and denied that protected forests would be cleared for the project.

“We clearly understand conservation and protection of the environment,” he said. “The concerns raised by any organization is their business but the government and Environment Ministry has paid attention to protect our natural resources.”

Cambodia has seen some of the fastest destruction of its natural resources, especially damage caused by development or large agriculture projects on its forest cover. Satellite imagery analyzed by the University of Maryland in the United States showed that Cambodia lost 63,000 hectares of the forest cover in 2019, the tenth most in the world for that year.

In certain areas, like the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, the University of Maryland said the protected area had lost 7,510 hectares, which amounted to more than one football field of woodland destroyed every hour in 2019.

Suy Thea, provincial director at the Kampot Department of Environment, backed Neth Pehaktra’s claim that there would be no environmental impacts from the projects, and that some forest land would be preserved.

“They have a master plan in which some places have forest and they will keep that and some will be cleared according to their master plan,” Thea said, declining to comment further.

Say Sinol, director of the Department of Tourism in Kampot, welcomed the new development projects and said they would help with “eco-tourism” and were of national interest.

“I think it is very important to attract visitors, including the development and construction of infrastructure,” he said.

The tourism official said the trees on the ridge of Bokor Mountain were not “big” and that there was no “evergreen forest or tall trees” at the construction sites.

“With development, there are always small and big impacts but we have to think of the larger interests [for the nation]” Sinol said. “[The damage] is not large-scale like destroying the forest.”

Yun Phally, the Kampot provincial coordinator at rights group Adhoc, said there was other land the government could allot for large development projects, rather than allowing for construction in protected areas. He also questioned the benefits of the project for the average Cambodian citizen.

“For our people who have a low income, they can’t afford to buy in such luxurious residential projects, as the one being built on the rooftop of a mountain,” he said, adding that the project was targeted at the rich and elite.