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The other company, Evergreen Success & Asia Resort Development, obtained a concession of 2377 hectares.
Evergreen Success is linked to Hun To, a nephew of the Prime Minister, who has been investigated by Australian authorities for drug trafficking and money laundering. According to a report published in 2012 in The Age newspaper, To was interesting for Operation Illipango, an Australian investigation into the heroin concealed in Cambodian timber shipments. To’s arrest plans failed when the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh canceled his travel visa.
To has since become co-director of the Lixin Group, a Taiwanese construction and real estate company that has already developed a hotel in Sihanoukville under the American brand Wyndham.
Lixin promotes its “New City” development in Ream National Park. An advertisement on the station’s WeChat channel from September highlighted the ecotourism component of the project. But plans for the resort include massive developments inside the park, from a golf resort and horse racing track to casinos and hotels, all flanked by mangroves.
The rise of Yeejia in Cambodia also depends on elite contacts. Company President Fu Xianting’s resume includes time in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and then in state-owned enterprises, one of which brought him to Cambodia for a conference on agricultural machinery and manufacturing slight.
According to a Financial Times 2016 survey, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers revoked Fu’s concession to Ream after concerns about forest clearing from environmental groups. But Fu, who has close personal ties to Hun Sen, met the Cambodian leader and got his support for continued development.
Yeejia’s development plans for Golden Silver Bay range from casinos and luxury hotels to a conference center and medical rehabilitation facilities. Its presence on social media WeChat shows that it advertises Chinese developers looking for a part of Cambodia, as well as tourists. In November, Yeejia organized a small inauguration ceremony with Zhonghai Tianhong Real Estate (Cambodia), who leased 4 hectares of land to the developer on a 99-year lease – the same term as Yeejia’s 2008 concession in the park. This despite the fact that, according to Cambodian law, concessions cannot be sold to another company without a new contract being established with the government.
Neither Yeejia nor Lixin would respond to China Dialogue’s requests for comment.
Destruction in progress
Beyond the bulldozers currently clearing the land in the name of tourism, illegal logging has continued in Ream. Chantha, the community activist, says state-employed park rangers patrol frequently, but will release loggers who pay them. Chantha accompanied the patrols and claims to have witnessed bribes.
According to Lopez Report 2001, about half of the rural households in the park have engaged in illegal logging in the past. Chantha and other villagers admit to cutting down trees for their own use before the authorities in Yeejia arrested them.
But things are different now. âEnvironment ministry officials blame the community for the deforestation, but it’s not us,â he said. “He’s someone outside and hired by an oknha (tycoon) or a wealthy businessman to come and clear the land here.”
Meanwhile, the coast of Ream and the rest of Preah Sihanouk province are also under threat. Ouk Vibol, director of conservation at Cambodia’s fisheries administration, says overfishing is a tall order, with trawlers scooping up any fish they can find, destroying seagrass beds. The loss of mangroves due to tourism developments in the park is also having a big impact on fish stocks, Ouk says.
“If you destroy a habitat, there are real negative impacts on the species that move from one habitat to another.”
Just outside the national park, a little-known Sino-Cambodian company, Canopy Sands Development, has undertaken a massive coastal rehabilitation project on 427 hectares granted by the Cambodian government. The company was created a month before receiving the land. Its shareholders also chair powerful companies in Cambodia, including Prince Group, including Chinese-born director Chen Zhi, obtained Cambodian citizenship thanks to its investments.
This and other developments along the coast, which was once home to waters teeming with lucrative squid, crabs and fish, have changed the lives of local fishermen.
Moored just north of the Canopy Sands development, Chan Ra, 27, says he has to be very careful where he drops his fishing lines. The traditional equipment he uses to catch squid is made of large shells stretched along a line. Squids nest in the shells for shelter without the need for bait. The shells are durable but expensive and are often damaged by the sand dredge boats filling the Canopy Sands area, Ra says. There are still squids near the shore, but the fisherman says he has to travel further to catch crabs.
Ra mostly lives on his boat these days, as another company is reclaiming land from the sea in the bay where he lived. âBefore, we could go home by boat, but now they fill it with dirt,â he says.
Ra had to relocate three times due to development projects. Like many locals, he built a house without obtaining an official land title – a requirement rarely enforced until land prices started to climb.
Nowhere is safe
Nam Then, 32, runs a small store selling sundries on a hill a few miles from the entrance to the Yeejia concession. He was not directly affected by the long-standing dispute between the local population and the Chinese company, whose concession overlaps their customary lands. But he shares the concerns of his neighbors and attends meetings on the issue at the Ream communal office.
âWe share information with the community,â he says. âWe are the same people with the same ailments. I also live in a part of the community, just in a different area.
In June of last year, the government allocated land and pledged titles to the three park communities affected by the Yeejia concession. However, the details have yet to be worked out. Then keep a plastic file filled with documents showing the contours of the plots. Some families miss it, he says, but he and others are watching the process closely.
Then moved to his current home and store in 2007 after Ream Naval Academy – who is part of a military wing that is caught up in controversies over Chinese access to the United States – decided to expand into the country near where his family lived.
âLooking back to 2007, we had nothing, people were weak, information systems didn’t exist and we lived in a military zone, so when you try to protest there was a lot of pressure ( on us), âhe said.
The current family home is on the other side of the same mountain. They have been relatively quiet since they moved, but one morning in late January Then told reporters much of the land in front of his house had been cleared. He wasn’t sure why. When reporters passed his house again at dusk, a digger was forging a new road around the mountain, leading to the Naval Academy.
When he first moved in, Then remembers: “It was a forest, a huge forest, there was no road yet.” Now, for the villagers of Ream, “it is very difficult, because the houses are all on company land”.