Mega developments set to transform a tranquil Cambodian bay

In Cambodia, the construction of a ferry terminal and a luxury resort is upsetting a mangrove-filled estuary’s equilibrium, threatening the source of food for thousands of families.

As the Trapeang Sangke estuary opens up into the Gulf of Thailand, the dense green mangroves that line its edges taper off in stages, from thick, full-grown forest down to new, spindly saplings marking a perfect frontier. On a timber deck that stretches by gangplank out over the furthest reach of this 337-hectare (833-acre) mangrove plantation, its guardian, Sim Him, was talking about the future.

“That’s the shipping lane,” he said, pointing toward two peaks of golden earth protruding from the ocean, “and the resort development,” he continued, raising both eyebrows and sweeping an arm over a bay crawling with tiny, rundown fishing boats, “is here.”

Seven years ago, Him gave up fishing in Kampot Bay off Cambodia’s southern coast and began growing mangroves. From a spider’s web of timber huts and walkways built over shallow, muddy waters, he sprouts and nurtures saplings and then replants them at the outer edges of the forest.

Kampot Mangrove Forest, his not-for-profit organisation that hosts environmentally minded travellers and students, has successfully transplanted more than 200,000 individual trees. As a result, this diverse estuarine ecosystem is thriving. The benefits spill out into a stretch of water that is the hunting grounds of small-scale and commercial fishing boats from both Cambodia and Vietnam.

But something has changed in recent months, Him said. The number of saplings surviving the transplanting process has decreased, from 95 per cent to about 30 per cent.

Toxic sediment has spread to the plantation after a channel was dredged in the seafloor to service an under-construction ferry terminal. The terminal, itself built on 4 hectares (10 acres) of buried mangrove forest, is just one in a series of industrial and commercial developments set to impose oil tankers, factory zones and cargo ships on this placid bay of mangrove forests, salt fields and fishermen.

They must stop filling our land and killing our mangroves. And fast; our stomachs are empty.

Sin Sen, village chief, Prey Smach

Dotted along a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) strip of Cambodian coastline, no less than six large-scale developments present a direct threat to healthy mangrove forests, which, as a nursery for fish and crustaceans, stand at the vital center of an ecosystem supporting thousands of families.

The ferry terminal, being built with an $18 million loan from the Asian Development Bank, aims to bring passengers from nearby Thai and Vietnamese resort islands—upward of 360,000 of them a year, starting in 2019. An environmental assessment conducted in 2014 found that the terminal could harm mangrove forests and would destroy seagrass meadows.

Earlier this month, an Asian Development Bank officer told Mongabay via email that a revised environmental management plan would be published in the first quarter of 2018. The project was approved by the Cambodian Ministry of Economy and Finance and has been well publicised. The remainder of the projects, however, have been less transparent.

A new Cambodia

Twenty years after the last of the Khmer Rouge rebels surrendered their arms, putting an end to decades of war, Cambodia is enjoying statistical prosperity like it has never seen. Expanding at 7 per cent per year, its economy is among the fastest growing in the world.

The World Bank has elevated the country from lower- to lower middle-income status. Foreign investment, particularly from China, flows in untapped. A country fractured by civil war is enjoying the fruits of development.

At least, its ruling class is. Land grabs, forced evictions, environmental destruction and the pillaging of natural resources are staples of local news, and poverty still hangs heavy over much of the population.

In a traditionally modest and conservative society, the newly attainable consumer desires and development plans of the wealthy and well-connected often clash head-on with the basic needs of average citizens, the ecosystems they depend upon, and the conservation projects set up to protect them.

The $23.2 billion French Riviera Marina is a 6,000-hectare (14,826 acre) strip of golf courses, polo grounds, yacht clubs, beach resorts and villas on two artificial islands slated for construction across the mouth of the Trapeang Sangke inlet.

The developer, a Dubai-owned, Cambodia-based company called Pallas Brilliant Investment and Development, has the wife of a senior government minister on its board. The project was given preliminary approval by the Council of Ministers in October 2016. On its website, the resort offers prospective residents the chance to enjoy life “with the very top tier of society” and “in complete harmony with the environment.”

Him said he was never consulted over the project, which would place a barrier of extreme decadence between hundreds of fishing families and the bay they depend upon. When a crew of laborers arrived in May to begin work on the project just beyond the reach of his mangrove plantation, a recognised conservation area, Him lobbied local authorities and had them removed. But he remains wary.

“It’s never over,” he said. “They test for our reaction, then they withdraw and reassess.”

A village holds on

A 30-minute drive west of Trapeang Sangke, past villages where fishermen literally step out of their homes and onto their boats, construction is once again underway at the site of a long-planned, 1,000-hectare (2,470-acre) special economic zone and accompanying port.

The project’s stop-start development was punctuated by battles with a local fishing community over 200 hectares (494 acres) of threatened mangrove forest. Alongside a $400 million coal-fired power plant to be built with Chinese backing, the site is planned to become a manufacturing hub, importing raw materials and exporting finished products. The mangrove forest is long gone.

Nearby, the skeleton of a $300 million deep-sea port stretches out into the ocean. Built by Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings, it is expected to receive 20,000-metric-ton cargo ships by 2019. Between now and then, a 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) channel will be dredged to 15 meters (49 feet) below the water’s surface, releasing sequestered carbon into an ecosystem already besieged by acidification and rising water temperatures. Attached to the port, the Cambodia Petrochemical Company has flattened mangroves and erected the first storage tanks at a $2.3 billion oil refinery—all of it on a 300-hectare (740-acre) chunk of coastal land owned by timber baron Try Pheap, who is also an adviser to the Cambodian prime minister.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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