Razing of Phnom Tamao Forest Begins

Excavators are clearing land in the Phnom Tamao forest on August 1, 2022. (Kuoy Langdy/VOD)
Excavators are clearing land in the Phnom Tamao forest on August 1, 2022. (Kuoy Langdy/VOD)
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Excavators have begun tearing strips through the protected Phnom Tamao forest — recently privatized for development by select tycoons — raising fears among locals and a wildlife sanctuary that shares the land.

The beloved forest, about an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh, is nearby popular weekend destination Tonle Bati lake, which is also slated to be filled up and developed, and not far from the capital’s new international airport under construction.

Conservationists say the Phnom Tamao forest is home to endangered sambar deer as well as wild pigs, monkeys and rare birds, but various plans for development have emerged in recent months.

One official document showed that 500 hectares controlled by the Forestry Administration would be transferred to private ownership, without detailing the exact site or new owner. Another document mapped around 700 hectares as being requested by tycoon Khun Sea’s TP Moral Group. The Agriculture Minister told VOD on Saturday that tracts had been sold to developer and music-video producer Leng Navatra.

On Monday, drone footage captured at least five excavators felling strips through the forest’s northeast corner. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellite showed no clearing as of Friday, indicating the work likely began or ramped up over the weekend.

At a pagoda inside the forest, chief monk Sot Phally said he had gone to see the clearing in the past couple of days, and saw around 30 workers using excavators to cut down trees. The scene made him disappointed, he said.

“I went there and saw the clearing. I don’t want to go anymore because it hurts my feelings,” Phally said.

Nearby the pagoda, tents were set up to protect a gate leading into the forest. Guards said they had arrived on Sunday and were told to stop people from going to where the clearing is happening.

Cheam Sokhom, a beverage seller in the area, said she had seen trucks and excavators passing by her shop since late last week.

“They went back and forth but they didn’t talk to us. I’m worried about the future because we live here,” Sokhom said.

(Kuoy Langdy/VOD)
(Kuoy Langdy/VOD)

Other locals said they were similarly disappointed and fearful of the development, and they see deer on the road virtually every day. Some said they had been blocked from going to see the clearing activity.

Keo Ngean, a local village guard, said he was unhappy about what was happening to the forest.

“I just saw it. They took the excavator these few days. I’ve just heard that they plan to develop the area. It’s very sad,” Ngean said. “We are angry. I can’t describe my feelings, just keep them inside. We fear screaming and protesting because this belongs to the government.”

He had seen plans circulating of condominiums and houses being built in the area, he said.

“The clearing will continue. But please keep the forest, even just 5 hectares, for the people here to see that we have the forest from our ancestors’ time,” he said.

Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon, however, again drew attention to the zoo in one corner of the forest to say that fears about harm to wild animals were exaggerated.

“I already told you, there will be no impact. The zoo will still be a zoo. We’ve already built a fence around 400 hectares that will not be impacted,” he said on Saturday. The forest area is over 2,000 hectares. “Exaggerators keep talking.”

Sakhon said around 1,500 hectares were being developed for housing and dairy farming. The state would make money off trees being sold, and land had been sold to Leng Navatra, Sakhon said.

In a statement, conservationist Nick Marx said Wildlife Alliance had long worked with the Forestry Administration to protect the area — estimating that the NGO had spent $10 million on the wildlife sanctuary and surrounding forest over 20 years — and urged the government to reconsider the sale.

“I now understand that this is planned for the entire 2,300 hectares of Phnom Tamao forest, excluding the 400 hectares that contains the zoo/rescue center,” he said.

Marx said the Phnom Tamao forest housed many rare wild animals and was the only forested eco-destination for Cambodians and foreign visitors anywhere near Phnom Penh.

“We understand that development is an inescapable fact, but to turn the Phnom Tamao forest into yet another satellite city near Phnom Penh would unnecessarily waste a most valuable natural resource,” he said, suggesting eco-friendly lodges, lakes and bird-watching shelters instead.

Additional reporting by Nat Sopheap

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