KAMPOT and KEP PROVINCES — Usually there are some 10 trucks careening past Noch’s row house every day, but on a Thursday in late August it was unusually quiet. He speculates that the work is slower due to the pandemic rippling through Cambodia.
Visible from Noch’s house is a mangrove forest and a small canal to the right, but on the left is a new provincial navy base, and in front of it, stretches of sand.
Noch, 55, retired from fishing about 15 years before, saying he’s aged out of the trade’s demands, but he still goes out occasionally to collect some fish for family dinners. He claims those who make a living out of fishing largely moved to Preah Sihanouk province to catch fish, as they are frequently not allowed to get around the local sandfilling site that’s expanded in the past three years, blocking access or destroying the mangrove forests and seagrass beds where fish and shellfish spawn.
“Nothing is helping the community, nothing,” he says. “They say the community has jobs, but we’ll see when they fill it up. But today, just nothing is happening.”
Noch’s sea view now overlooks a 200-hectare stretch of sand, gradually filled in recent years but officially granted only last year to the Kampot government and a little-known company called IGB Cambodia to fill and develop. Fishing communities warn that there are other proposals up and down the coast of Kampot and Kep.
Between official documents, residents’ accounts and evidence of filling on the ground, reporters have found five seafilling projects on the Kampot coast — some of them spanning hundreds of hectares — while some locals have been told of twice as many proposals. Filling has started on at least three of those projects. Details are scarce on some of the plans, and it remains unclear how many will go ahead.
Filling in Progress
Trucks have been pouring sand into the sea near Noch’s house since 2018, he says, reinforcing satellite imagery that shows gradual filling since around that time.
On December 31, years into the sandfilling, the government granted 80 hectares of the boat-shaped area to a registered company called IGB Cambodia, while leaving another 120 hectares to the Kampot provincial administration. A 1-year-old post on the Cambodia Constructors Association’s news outlet, Construction & Property, claims the area is actually 234 hectares and is co-owned by the province, but IGB will develop it into a beach for tourists.
Residents say they’ve heard of more than just the IGB project, or that the IGB project extends beyond the boundaries it originally set out to fill. Khiev Savaing, the deputy fishing community chief for the Kep Thmei village collective in Kampot’s Boeng Touk commune, which is directly affected by the IGB project, says he has also heard from researchers who came to study the environmental impacts of a 400-hectare sandfilling project within his community’s fishing territory about four or five months ago. However the chief didn’t explicitly know whether this was the IGB project or another proposal.
Even if the development stays at 200 hectares total, as suggested by the government document, the damage has been done, Savaing says. The company left fishers a small, difficult to pass canal to navigate their boats to the shore, while simultaneously destroying the assets that make this shallow patch a good spot to fish, Savaing says.
“First they took a small area, but now they take a bigger area,” he says, noting that the company cut a road, and the development’s impacts spill beyond their designated location on the map.
The sand filling has damaged their mangrove forests, and patches of the trees are being cut, while sand falling off the filling site pollutes the water. When residents try to put rocks into the sea to protect their seagrass — another spawning site — the company removes them, he adds.
Cambodia’s marine coasts are filled with seagrass: meadows and scruffy patches of underwater plants that native and migratory fish and shellfish often use for laying eggs. According to a U.N. report on seagrasses, seagrass beds are thought to support a high number of the fish species caught and consumed by Cambodian fishers, but the quality of seagrass beds are declining largely to trawling and other unsustainable fishing practices, as well as unplanned coastal development, according to the undated report. A 2007 global study of seagrasses shows that they’re not only damaged by physical removal from dredging, but also burial, turbidity and sedimentation — or sand and silt clouding and then resettling in the water at unnatural levels — during dredging.
“We told them there are impacts [to fishers’ livelihoods], but they still do it,” Savaing says, noting that they raised the issue to the research team that visited months ago.
He says the community has already had to encroach on another fishing community’s territory, on the west side of the Phnom Doeng mountain in Troeuy Koh commune, around 3.5 km away in a direct path.
Troeuy Koh, a large triangular island splitting the Prek Toek Chhou river before it empties into the sea, is an epicenter for sandfilling, with mounds of sand and resort constructions cropping up at the island’s shores. Residents who spoke to VOD in late August said that fishing and natural sea salt had been their main livelihoods, but land prices have skyrocketed and many are using sand to even out the land or create more space along the edges.
In 2019, the government privatized 300 hectares of sea south of Troeuy Koh, designating it the “Hang Reach” tourism area, without specifying its purpose, via sub-decree. On the coast near this area, sandfilling has started.
At the triangular island’s southwestern corner, one landowner filled another beach into the sea before the pandemic hit, says a middle-aged guard who sits watching the beach from a bench in late August, claiming not to know his boss’s name. The guard says a few tourists, mostly Chinese, have come to the resort, which is not more than a handful of wooden gazebos on the filled sand. The beach is scattered with old tires, used to keep the sand in place, but the guard says his boss keeps losing the rocks they use to prevent sand erosion, likely stolen by other sandfillers.
Troeuy Koh commune chief Pov Son says investors from Phnom Penh have been buying land across the island for $30 to $40 per square meter. But some of the nation’s most powerful investors — the prime minister’s son and general Hun Manet, as well as the premier’s nephew Hun To — also hold pieces of land, especially near Phnom Doeng mountain at the island’s southwest corner, Son says.
“They have bought the land from our people, and they have bought it 10 to 20 years ago. … Some of them got the [land] title while others have not yet received titles.”
Other companies, including the Thai Boon Roong Group — which is behind cement mining in Kampot and some ostentatious but stalled construction projects — have proposed building resorts on more than 300-hectare plots, though most have not been developed, he says.
“We do not allow them to fill it up, and they secretly fill it up, and now we try to find a way to stop them,” he says, though he denies anyone is filling mangrove forests with sand. “Everyday we try to stop them and it’s very difficult to handle them.”
Not far from IGB is yet another port project, this one a deep-sea port that appears to be developed for international cargo.
On a Thursday in late August, one ship is docked at the terminal’s end, with a few workers milling about. Closer to the mainland, Nai, a fisherman from Kampot province, has docked for the day, rearranging ropes as reporters approach his boat. He’s still allowed to dock at the deep sea port for now, but he expects this won’t last long.
“When they fill this area up, we need to move, we cannot stop any more,” he says. He believes the water surrounding a road stretching into the sea will be filled for more land. “Soon they will block us, not allow us to come here.”
Tycoon Vinh Huor has been developing an international port as part of the Kampot Special Economic Zone since 2006, with residents complaining about filling linked to the project since at least 2009. Satellite images show filling since around 2006. News articles, meanwhile, have reported that Cambodia’s timber tycoon Try Pheap’s Try Pheap Group is also developing a port in Kampot with Guangxi Beibu Gulf International Port, a Chinese state-owned company with a Shenzhen-listed subsidiary.
The Try Pheap Group could not be reached for comment, while Huor inquired how a reporter acquired his phone number and then stopped responding. Beibu Gulf Port, the listed subsidiary of the Guangxi Beibu Gulf International Port, did not have any posts regarding a Kampot port development on its website, though it has mentioned the company is importing fruit from Sihanoukville’s port to its own in China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
Nai is no longer a part of the fishing communities, which he used to find useful for protecting territory, finding buyers and advocating for fishers’ interests. Simultaneously, the seagrass habitats are shrinking — he estimates only 30 percent remains accessible to fishers.
“Before we would just drive [our boats] around here, and we could catch a lot,” he says, estimating he used to earn around 200,000 riel, or about $50, per trip. “Now we can only get 40,000 or 50,000 riel.”
Sand on the Horizon
Fishers in other communities have heard of further sand-filling projects in Kep and Kampot alike, that are largely inactive so far, though developers seem to be plotting new builds.
The day that reporters visit the Kampong Samaki fishing community in Kampot’s Kounsat commune, the community’s secretary Tep Savoeun is filling out charts with notes from a meeting, saying he just finished a public forum about plans proposed by two companies, travel firm 3K IG and real estate company MNT. Kounsat’s commune chief told VOD earlier last month that there were few details about the two companies’ proposals, which were yet to be approved.
Savoeun says he now has some information about what these tourism developments would entail — such as resorts, condos and potentially horseback riding — but he feels none of these amenities would benefit him and his community. He can write, hence his role as secretary of the fishing community, but he is among the few. The company promised jobs to the community at the proposed ecotourism resort, but he says his peers are unlikely to be hired.
“When the company opens [the development], they will take only the ones who are educated, so that’s why we don’t agree,” he says.
The Kampong Samaki community leader, Sok Kao, says the community is struggling with a number of problems — other fishers encroach their territory and use illegal methods like improper-sized nets and electric shocks, and they’ve had smaller and smaller catches due to the competition and lack of space to fish from projects like the sandfilling in Kep Thmei village.
But there are further projects he has heard about, Kao says, like a massive project off the coast of Kep that they call Omni, though they haven’t heard of the project’s status since around 2017. Another fishing community in Kampot noticed that plans to develop 640 hectares under the Ching Kor Import-Export company appeared to stall after its chairwoman, a former ruling party senator, died earlier this year.
One sub-decree, signed in January 2019, was found to privatize 248 hectares of sea near the Kampong Samaki community — dubbed “Kampot Thmei” in the document — but it was unclear which company would receive this area.
The community rejects these plans, Kao says, but he notices that companies often hold public forums through local officials, where there have been offers residents have interpreted as bribes.
“[The commune chief] tried to give us money this month, but we don’t want it,” he says. The chief warned that the development could be done the “quiet way” if communities agreed, but protesting residents could face jail time.
Neither Ching Kor nor Pallas Brilliant Investment, the company connected to the Omni development, could be reached through their phone numbers listed with the Commerce Ministry.
Vann Sophath, land reform program manager for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says he too has struggled to get information about what sandfilling projects are currently happening in Kampot. He has studied the Ching Kor and Omni projects but has yet to establish if they were truly occurring after years of plans and rumors, he says.
“It is quite difficult and hard for the affected community, [as] not most but all [members] do not agree with this project,” he says, speaking specifically of the Omni development. An architectural map seen by reporters put the proposal at a huge 3,910 hectares, though the origin of the document is unclear. Sophath says he has heard it could be even bigger. “They want to continue their fishing. However, for the authorities I met, they are unclear also [about what’s happening]. Some of the authorities say this project has been canceled, some say it’s unclear, so now we do not have clear information on whether this company is continuing or canceled.”
If they do proceed with a project, as 3K IG and MNT development is trying to do, companies typically hold a public forum, Sophath says. But rather than provide communities with a chance to air their concerns about a sandfilling development, these forums are often used by the company to try to convince citizens to accept a project or sell their land.
“The communities say they’re not stupid. Now they just want to continue their fishing because they have rights. Anytime, if they want to fish it’s OK to go. If they want to rest they can,” he says. “But if they give [the area] to the company … some, most of the companies, they promise to share the income and promise to offer jobs to the community, but this is just the promise.”
The communities are increasingly organizing and trying to find out more about these projects, which they largely oppose, Sophath says. Savoeun, the secretary in the Kampong Samaki community, shows reporters a map with 10 locations for projected sandfilling projects, including known projects like IGB’s as well as others that reporters were not familiar with. The other projects could not be confirmed, and the origins of the map were unclear.
Reporters could only find information about five of the projects: Ching Kor, Omni, the deep sea port, IGB and the project by 3K IG and MNT.
Kampot governor Cheav Tay said he was too busy to comment, while Veth Vatthana, head of the provincial administration, declined to comment.
Ouk Vibol, deputy director of the Fisheries Administration’s conservation department, did not respond to questions sent via Telegram.
Sophath and the Kampong Samaki community say ActionAid Cambodia is helping organize the communities, but Latt Ky, the program manager, says he will not be able to talk before ActionAid releases a report next month on the environmental and social impact assessments — which companies are required to perform when they develop a tourism area of 50 hectares or larger, or construct a port of any size.
Sophath says part of the issue lies in the nature of community fishing titles — their official territories are granted for short periods of time, at three years, and the titles fall on water, which is state land and thus liable to be confiscated for the state’s other purposes at the government’s will.
“Community fisheries are still at risk at any time because the land and fishing area right now belongs to the state based on the law on fisheries — these communities, what they rely on belongs to the state [so] these communities, they face seizure or eviction anytime,” he says. “They should have the right to occupy and enjoy the area forever, even if it’s on state land.”
The fishing community in O’Krasar, a Kep province community of more than 230 families, has already had some 30 or 40 hectares of their fishing territory taken back by the state, which now stands at about 100 hectares, says Kem Khan, the 73-year-old fishing chief.
The development called Kep Thmei by the communities — the 200 hectares developed by IGB and Kampot administration — is part of the area they once fished, Khan says, but now they’ve been pushed to either go further out to sea or find new seagrass beds. But there are small sandfilling projects everywhere, noting that trucks have started dumping sand into the waters around the Kep city center too.
“If they go further [into the sea], we reach Vietnam’s territory, and the small boats can’t catch fish,” he says.
Tim Chanda, 47, a neighbor to Khan, is diligently untangling wires of her family’s translucent fishing nets as she talks with reporters. She says many have left the profession because they’re cut off from sea grasses and can’t touch the deeper fishing waters, which neighboring Vietnamese fishers with larger boats occupy.
“People have already started getting tired [of fishing] and selling their boats, because they’ve started filling,” she says.
Khan remains unsure if all these proposed sandfilling projects will proceed, but until they fill in all the seagrass, some of his community will continue to fish, he says.
“It will all be filled in eventually,” Khan says.
Correction: This article originally stated that the deep sea port is being developed by the Try Pheap Group. More than one port has been proposed in the vicinity, however, and the sand filling has previously been linked to an older project.