Chinese and Vietnamese companies are grinding Cambodia’s Ta Kream Mountain into gravel, ruining its natural beauty and causing respiratory problems for area residents, villagers told RFA.
Environmental activists and villagers told RFA that the mountain, in the northwestern province of Battambang, is being systematically destroyed to support a construction boom within the province and in the capital Phnom Penh.
The Banna district in Battambang once counted 31 mountains within its borders that had became popular tourist attractions, some of which were home to ancient temples. A few of the mountains were destroyed by development in 2013.
Now Ta Kream and several other nearby peaks are at risk of falling to the same fate.
Residents of Ta Kream village have petitioned local authorities to stop the companies, both for environmental and health reasons. Several residents said they have developed respiratory problems from the large amounts of dust the gravel operations kick up.
“I am so sad because we could be having wild vegetables and mushrooms but now the forest-covered mountains have become deserts,” a villager, who declined to be named for security reasons, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
He said the gravel operations are destroying wildlife habitats, as well as the identity of the villagers.
In December, a group of villagers protested and blocked a road in an effort to stop the gravel mining. They have also appealed to authorities to step in. But so far local officials have sided with developers, charging some protesters with incitement, the source said.
Other villagers told RFA that the four gravel companies — Heng Chat Construction, Nim Meng Group, and the Tang Thailong and Thy Long companies — are likely operating without licenses, because the local authorities tried to hide information and ignored their health concerns.
But Soeum Bunrith, a spokesman for the province, told RFA that the gravel companies were all licensed and had performed environmental impact studies. The companies have also constructed many local buildings and a highway to Phnom Penh, the spokesman said.
He however acknowledged that the companies have negatively impacted the environment and the livelihood of the people and promised that the authorities would not ignore these issues.
“We have studied the villagers’ complaints and educated the investors,” he said. “Any development will impact local communities, so the companies must find ways to protect the environment and the people’s livelihood if they want to sustain their businesses.”
Gravel companies have been exploiting Cambodia’s mountains for two decades with little transparency, Phoung Keo Raksmey, an environmentalist, told RFA.
“The government should have been responsible back then,” she said, adding that it is the government’s duty to protect the mountains.
“I have observed that the central and local government have supported these kinds of businesses. I hope they will wake up and protect our natural resources,” she said.
RFA was unable to reach Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Peaktra for comment.
The government should take tougher measures to protect natural resources, and resolve the villagers’ concerns, Heng Kimhong, head of the research and advocacy program of the Cambodian Youth Network, told RFA.
“How much revenue from the mountain’s exploitation goes to the government and the local community?” he said. “There should be transparency before these people’s lives are impacted.”
Cambodia’s natural resources are being destroyed due to government negligence and corruption, Soeung Seng Karuna, spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, told RFA.
“I urge the authorities to reconsider this case because the issues impact villagers. Authorities should protect natural resources and our forests,” he said.
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