Vast Tracts of Phnom Tamao Forest Targeted for Real Estate, Documents Show

4 min read
Plots outlined in documents distributed at a Phnom Tamao stakeholder meeting on May 6, 2022. The red area, included in a cadastral document, is listed as being “for real estate.” The orange areas, outlined in a map distributed at the meeting, is listed as having been requested by TP Moral Group, a development company directed by tycoon Khun Sea. (VOD)

Documents shared by provincial authorities and other participants at a stakeholder meeting for development at the Phnom Tamao forest show apparent plans to transfer huge portions of forest for real estate.

Fifteen company and state officials were listed as having attended the meeting, though all of them either refused to comment on what was discussed, denied having attended, or could not be reached. They would not confirm the contents of the documents, which were shared by a local monk who also attended the meeting on behalf of a pagoda located inside the forest.

The planned destruction of the Phnom Tamao forest, home to a wildlife rescue center of the same name as well as endangered animals and rare birds, has alarmed conservationists, but its potential scope was not previously disclosed.

The first of three key documents distributed at the meeting, which are the minutes of the meeting, is four pages issued by the provincial cadastral office containing information about three plots in the forest area.

The document details the location of one of the plots, a large 500-hectare area that coordinates show would cut right through the middle of the Phnom Tamao forest.

The document is signed by provincial land management director Nuon Sothea on May 6, the same day as the meeting. It says that the plots, located in forest and conservation areas, will be changed from state land for real estate. The document adds that the other two plots are about 300 and 10 hectares, though it says the exact boundaries of the latter location have yet to be verified by the cadastral office.

The second document is a map of two other areas in the park. It lists a company’s name, developer TP Moral Group, as having requested the plots. The plots would fill the area between the 500-hectare area in the cadastral document and the Phnom Tamao animal rescue center. The map lists the larger of the two plots as spanning 520 hectares, while coordinates show the other is around 160 hectares.

According to the Commerce Ministry, TP Moral Group is directed by notorious tycoon Khun Sea as well as Khun Ty and Khun Sengpheng. Sea, Ty and Sengpheng could not be reached through ministry-listed phone numbers.

The map does not give any details about plans for the plots, nor does it include a date or say who produced it. Minutes from the Friday meeting only say it was distributed by “professional officers,” while the monk who attended said he was unsure who they were. Government officials did not give details or confirmation about the land.

The third document is a list of 18 participants of the meeting. They include three representatives of the pagoda as well as Sothea, the provincial land management director; Em Lek, the provincial cadastral office director; and Nhek Ratanakpich, the Forestry Administration’s Phnom Tamao director. Most of the other listed participants are cadastral officers.

VOD reached out to all 15 non-pagoda participants. Eight of them declined to give any information about the meeting or plans. One, a company representative, denied having attended. Six could not be reached through their listed phone numbers.

Lek, the cadastral director, said the 500 hectares marked in the cadastral map did not yet belong to anyone, and would only say that it was up to the Agriculture Ministry. Sothea, the land management director, also referred questions to the ministry. Phnom Tamao director Ratanakpich could not be reached.

Yong Bunny, listed in the meeting summary as being a representative of Khmer Fresh Milk, which has a dairy farm in the area, denied having even attended the meeting despite being recorded as a participant, and would not confirm what company he worked for.

Wat Tmor Antorng chief monk Sot Phally said he was promised a concrete road to be built by a developer whose name he did not know.

Among officials who did not attend the meeting, Bati district’s Kandoeng commune chief Srey Sombou said he did not have authority over the land, which belonged to the Agriculture Ministry, while the ministry’s Forestry Administration director Keo Omaliss hung up on a reporter. Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon could not be reached on Tuesday.

VOD reporters visited the forest last week and saw short concrete border posts near the pagoda and inside the forest. Environmentalists have said the forest is home to endangered species, such as painted storks, greater adjutant and sambar deer.

Nick Marx, a director at Wildlife Alliance, which operates the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, said wildlife could be a part of development projects, rather than harmed by them.

“Development does not necessarily have to entail the destruction of nature and natural resources,” Marx said. “If the development of the Phnom Tamao forest means the creation of an eco-friendly resort with a lodge, wildlife watching opportunities for Cambodian citizens and foreign visitors, this would be a credit to the government, and Wildlife Alliance would support the project.”

“If the current concept is to destroy the forest and its wildlife to build more high rise condos, we would be against it.”

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