A CONSERVATION NGO collaborating with an investment firm told residents of an island off the coast of Preah Sihanouk province this week that they would be restricted to a 12.3-hectare piece of land in order to make way for a development project, Paul Ferber, the founder of Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), said.
Ferber said the meetings between the residents of Koh Rung Sangleum and representatives of Fauna and Flora International (FFI) took place on Monday and Tuesday. He noted that the size of the land could be subject to change.
Toby Eastoe, project manager for FFI, confirmed that the meetings had taken place, and said his organisation was working with the Hong Kong-based investment company Lime Tree Capital on the development project. He said the size of the land for villagers and the details of the development project had yet to be finalised.
MCC, an ecotourism business based on the island, has criticised the restriction that could be imposed on the 92 families who stand to be affected by the project, saying it would constitute an unnecessary impingement on their rights.
“FFI, even with knowledge about the reduction of community land, seems happy to support a concessionaire that has created a master plan without any local consultation, regardless of the effects to the community,” Ferber said by email Thursday.
He said the restriction, which has yet to be approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), would leave “absolutely no room for the village to grow”.
But Eastoe defended FFI’s work with Lime Tree Capital, saying they were working together to mitigate the potential effects of the project on both the environment and the local community.
He said Lime Tree Capital was granted a concession with a 99-year-lease in mid-2008, and asked FFI later that year to act as environmental consultant for the development of the island.
He said he could not provide the size of the concession.
“Because the company who took this lease on is a responsible company, they asked us to come out and conduct a survey, which basically tells us what sort of flora and fauna are on the island,” he said, and added that FFI staff conducted their first survey on the island in early 2009.
The meetings held this week, he said, were intended to outline provisional village boundaries, though he noted that these boundaries were at the centre of ongoing discussions with the CDC.
“There is a master plan that is being talked about with the CDC, [but] they are still negotiating exclusion areas that won’t be developed,” he said.
CDC officials with knowledge of the Lime Tree Capital project could not be reached for comment this week.
Eastoe said he was “probably going to advise the company to expand the exclusion area” following his trip to the island this week, but emphasised that such decisions were not FFI’s to make.
“We’re advisers to Lime Tree. We can’t tell them what to do,” he said.
Lime Tree Capital could not be reached for comment.
Eastoe said Ferber may have personal reasons for raising concerns about the size of the exclusion area.
“The exclusion area at the moment probably scares Paul because his bungalows are outside the exclusion area and the company probably has a right to throw Paul off the island,” he said.
However, village chief Lay Thai said Wednesday that he, too, was concerned about the project and the proposed restriction.
He said a group of 50 villagers had attended this week’s meetings with FFI representatives, who he said told them to immediately stop cutting down trees and constructing buildings.
Like Ferber, Lay Thai said he was worried that the restriction would prevent the village from growing.
“The FFI officials pointed out the border of the land for us to live on, and they don’t allow the villagers to build new houses when their children want to live separately from their parents after they get married,” he said.
Eastoe, however, said FFI had taken the unusual step of working with a development company because it saw an opportunity to help reduce the environmental impact of rapid coastal development.
“This is a new thing for FFI – we usually work with the government – but there are a lot of new land concessions along the coast, and we’re worried that if someone doesn’t work with them, things will get out of hand,” he said.
“We want to make sure developers don’t just wipe everything out and build hotels.”
Ferber said that he would be happy to work with FFI and developers, so long as conservation projects do not harm the local community.
“If FFI want to set up a conservation project and support the community, they have my full support and cooperation,” he said.