- The Cambodian government has suspended a planned marble mine inside a wildlife sanctuary that it had approved just months earlier.
- It’s not clear why this commercial extractive concession inside a protected area was approved in the first place, or why it’s now been suspended (but not canceled).
- The mine would have threatened an important REDD+ project in Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary that benefits both local communities and the area’s biodiversity.
- The REDD+ project is also a bulwark against deforestation; satellite data show it suffers far less forest loss than other parts of the wider wildlife sanctuary and surrounding areas that overlap with concessions.
MONDULKIRI, Cambodia — In a rare win for conservationists and Cambodia’s Indigenous communities, the Ministry of Environment has opted to suspend a planned marble mining operation within a wildlife sanctuary along the border with Vietnam.
A letter dated June 27 from then-environment minister Say Samal ordered that the mining exploration operation be suspended before it even broke ground in Mondulkiri province. The decision came just 10 weeks after Samal had approved the roughly 4,000-hectare (9,900-acre) exploration license within the heart of Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on April 24.
The marble mine had prompted consternation among conservationists working in the sanctuary and outrage among the communities who stood to be affected. The area covered by the exploration license not only fell within the core zone of the protected area, but was also situated in the Keo Seima REDD+ project area, which generates funding to support the traditional conservation methods of the Bunong Indigenous groups who make up the majority of the population in Sre Preah commune where the license was granted.
Niv Kanong, a Bunong resident of O’Chra village, said he hadn’t heard about the mine’s suspension when contacted in early July, adding that a public forum had taken place in late June, just prior to the announcement of the mine’s suspension.
“Officials told us at the forum that the company would conduct a study first and that they would not affect the environment,” Kanong told Mongabay by phone. “I was really worried about it all. We live downstream of the mining project site, so we worried it would affect our farmland and the health of our livestock.”
Kanong also expressed concerns about the community’s resin trees, which the Bunong have tapped sustainably as part of their traditional culture. The Keo Seima REDD+ project offers a financial incentive to communities that help preserve the forest, with five villages across Sre Preah commune set to receive $135,887 from the project in 2023 alone.
Documents seen by Mongabay show that, over the course of the year, the village of Gati is set to receive $45,325, while Pu Cha is expecting $32,511 and Pu Kung stands to gain $24,199. Both Sre Preah and O’Chra villages are on course to receive $16,926 each as a result of their participation in the REDD+ project.
“They would have destroyed 4,000 hectares of the forest,” Kanong said. “If we lose the forest, we lose the REDD+ project.”
An opaque process
It wasn’t just residents who had been kept in the dark. When contacted in July, Sai Bunthoeun, the head of the environmental department in Mondulkiri, said he hadn’t heard about the suspension of the marble mine and declined to answer further questions about it.
But if the suspension of the mine hadn’t been widely disseminated, its approval had been equally shrouded in mystery.
“There was no discussion,” Pie Pe, the commune chief of Sre Preah, said in a June interview before the suspension letter had been issued. “We just received a letter [in April] so whether people are affected or trees are affected, I don’t know.”
Pe, who is also ethnically Bunong, said that between the initial approval of the mine and the public forum just prior to its suspension, there had been no consultation between local officials and the mining company or the national government.
While local officials weren’t consulted prior to the approval of the mine, many residents who would have been affected hadn’t even heard that there was the possibility of a mining operation opening up in their forest.
“I don’t know about the mining company,” said Tung Dim in O’Chra village when reporters visited in early June. “If they take over [the forest], then the REDD+ project will probably get canceled. I don’t know how to express my feelings about this, because they are powerful feelings and if I say what I feel, I may go to prison.
“Whenever people advocate for the environment or complain, they end up in prison,” Dim added.
Some 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of O’Chra, in the village of Pu Cha, Leos Pheuk was acutely aware of the mine’s approval and feared the environmental destruction it would bring if it came to pass.
“I don’t believe that the government cares about us. How can they when they allow this company to come and destroy the forest?” said Pheuk, who also belongs to the Bunong Indigenous group. “I fear the REDD+ project will be lost for this community; the company has already begun to build a fuel station in the forest for their equipment.”
Rallying for REDD+
The REDD+ project covers 166,983 hectares of Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary’s 317,456 hectares (412,624 of 784,451 acres). When it was established in 1994, it fell entirely within the boundaries of a 470,000-hectare (1.16-million-acre) logging concession operated by Samling, a Malaysian-headquartered logging firm that managed to acquire rights to fell forests across more than 800,000 hectares (1.98 million acres) throughout Cambodia.
But Samling was unable to fulfill the 60-year lease it was granted on its sprawling timber empire in Cambodia. After years of gutting forests across the country, violating a 1996 ban on exports of timber, and illegally logging beyond its concession boundaries, Samling pulled out of Cambodia in 2003.
Samling’s exit came shortly after the effective demise of logging concessions (known formally as forest concessions), which covered a combined 7 million hectares (17 million acres) nationwide at their peak. Tighter regulations were introduced in 2002 after almost a decade of mismanagement.
Alistair Mould, country director at Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia (WCS), confirmed that the Samling logging concession overlapped with what is now Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, but said the type of logging meant the forest was still worth conserving.
“The focus was primarily on commercial logging, specifically targeting high-grade value species,” he said in an email to Mongabay. “While this led to a depletion of certain key tree species, it did not result in widespread deforestation of the area.”
This led WCS to conduct biodiversity surveys across Keo Seima which found that high levels of globally significant faunal biodiversity remained intact. The forest serves as a habitat for one of the country’s largest populations of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), estimated by WCS at between 100 and 130 of Cambodia’s 400-600 remaining wild elephants.
Although the last published population studies are roughly a decade old, WCS hopes to produce updated data on the protected area’s elephants in the coming months.
Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary is also home to the largest variety of bird species in Cambodia, with more than 350 species found within the protected forest. Researchers have found at least 75 threatened species within the sanctuary, as well as describing 15 new-to-science species, making Keo Seima one of Cambodia’s last remaining biodiversity hotspots.
WCS’s studies led to the establishment of the 305,000-hectare (754,000-acre) Seima Biodiversity Conservation area in 2002, which was then whittled down into the 296,000-hectare (731,000-acre) Seima Protection Forest in 2009. In 2010, WCS established the REDD+ project, and then, ultimately, Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016, when the REDD+ project began generating financial benefits for the communities in surrounding areas.
A July 17, 2023, subdecree saw Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary expand again, from 292,690 hectares to 317,456 hectares (723,253 to 784,451 acres), but the boundaries of the REDD+ project remain unchanged.
Conservation versus concessions
While Samling had exited from Keo Seima, the government rapidly replaced forest concessions with economic land concessions, which largely served the same purpose. By December 2021, these covered almost 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) nationwide. A moratorium on new concessions was issued in 2012, but they continue to be issued in an apparent violation of the policy.
“The expansion of [economic land concessions] in the late 2000s and early 2010s was a significant concern for us,” Mould said. “We observed firsthand the risks posed by [economic land concessions] to protected areas, coupled with the subsequent expansion of small-holder agriculture.”
Over the course of 2011, three concessions spanning a combined 14,908 hectares (36,838 acres) were awarded inside what is now Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, while at least nine other concessions surround the sanctuary, covering a total 57,578 hectares (142,278 acres) — much of which touches the border of the protected area.
These concessions inside Keo Seima resulted in a huge spike in deforestation, Mould said.
Data from Global Forest Watch support his claim, showing that between 2001 and 2010, Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary lost some 5,600 hectares (13,800 acres) of tree cover. After the concessions were issued in 2011, that accelerated, with 37,200 hectares (91,900 acres) lost between 2011 and 2016, and an additional 20,600 hectares (50,900 acres) lost between 2017 and 2022.
By contrast, since its establishment in 2010 and 2022, the Keo Seima REDD+ project area has seen just 532 hectares (1,314 acres) of tree cover vanish, Global Forest Watch data show.
But Mould warned that while Global Forest Watch is a valuable resource for tracking global deforestation trends, the satellite monitoring technology it uses doesn’t capture all land-cover changes with the same granularity as project-specific monitoring, and that there may be heavier losses within the REDD+ project area.
Pheuk from Pu Cha village, for whom the REDD+ project isn’t just a project but also his home, said neither formal protected status nor the sale of carbon credits has stamped out illegal logging in Keo Seima.
“To be honest, the forest crimes still happen. We patrol [the forest] without salary and we are all very tired of seeing the forest disappear,” said Pheuk when reporters visited in June. “Before the REDD+, though, companies saw our communities as having a lot of valuable resources, but now our community members know that when those companies affect the forest, it will affect our community, as well as the wildlife and biodiversity we have here.”
Pheuk pointed out that neither protected status nor the REDD+ project prevented the Ministry of Environment from issuing the marble mining license. Should the mine go through, he said, “It will destroy many old, big trees inside the project area and the protected area, it will destroy the habitats of many wild animals; elephants, deer and monkeys — a lot will be lost.”
In addition, Pheuk said, mining the forest would risk the future of carbon credit sales he credits with funding community-led forest patrols, as well as developments in education, health care and sustainable livelihoods. In June, the community planned to use the REDD+ money to build a public restroom in Pu Cha village.
Further east, in O’Chra village, Dim shared Pheuk’s sentiments, noting that the REDD+ project funding allowed residents of the village to conduct patrols of their community forest, buy livestock, and finance the construction of a small reservoir to help with farming during the dry season.
“Say Samal promised to protect this area,” Dim said, referring to the environment minister at the time. “Bunong people would go to prison if they tried to mine [the forest], so it’s only powerful people who can destroy the forest and face no consequence.”
The minister and the miners
And in Cambodia, opening up a marble mine in a protected area remains the preserve of powerful people. Cambodian Basalt Investment is headed by Kong Kanyka, a trilingual lawyer at CSP & Associates where she’s a senior partner specializing in real estate and construction.
Kanyka confirmed that she works both as a lawyer registered with the Cambodian Bar Association and as chair of Cambodian Basalt Investment, but declined to answer questions about why or how her company was approved to mine for marble inside both a protected area and a REDD+ project area.
“What I can provide to you is that, the project [has been withdrawn] and [canceled] by the Ministry of Environment when they know this area is wildlife zone,” she told Mongabay in a text message. “That’s all I can share to you.”
Article 53 of Cambodia’s Law on the Bar states that “The legal profession shall be incompatible with the performance of public functions and commercial businesses, whether directly or indirectly.”
Kanyka would not address whether her role at Cambodian Basalt Investment, or another company that she owns, was in breach of the legal profession’s regulations.
Her business partner at Cambodian Basalt Investment is prolific Chinese mining and mineral magnate Yu Zhijian, who has been involved in at least seven mining companies in Cambodia, including Cambodian YJ Stones, which claims to be “The Largest Black Green Granite Supplier in Asia.”
This link offers a glimpse into what could have happened had Cambodian Basalt Investment’s operation gone ahead. Cambodian YJ Stones owns a granite quarry in Kratie province, just 5 km (3 mi) east of the border of Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, where satellite imagery shows the mine’s environmental impact across some 350 hectares (865 acres).
Yu has operated there since 2008 through Cambodian Yuan Jing Mineral, where he served as chairman of the board of directors until the company ceased operations in 2017. The same year, Yu opened Cambodian YJ Stones, which took over Cambodian Yuan Jing Mineral’s mining license in Kratie province.
An uncertain future for Keo Seima
But while the Cambodian Basalt Investment mining license has been suspended, it hasn’t been canceled.
The possibility remains that a new mining company could approach the area, or even that Cambodian Basalt’s license could be renewed, especially since the proposed site for exploration overlaps with a historical expired 8,036-hectare (19,857-acre) mining license awarded in 2008 to Cambodia Hai Lan Mineral/Wang Fa Investment.
When questioned about the Cambodian Basalt Investment mine, then-environment minister Say Samal would not explain why the mine was ever approved in the first place, why it was suspended, or whether the move had harmed Cambodia’s reputation within the carbon credit marketplace.
Samal was appointed as land management minister on Aug. 22 as part of a post-election cabinet reshuffle.
“Decisions regarding mining operations within protected forests are made with the utmost consideration for environmental protection and sustainable development,” he said in response to questions posed by Mongabay. “The ministry is committed to responsible natural resources management and strives to minimize any adverse impacts on protected areas.”
Samal added that any future mining operations in other protected forests would be rigorously assessed to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and that there would be consultations with relevant stakeholders, along with greater coordination between government agencies.
The government, he said, is working to strike a balance between economic growth and conservation, with responsibility for Cambodia’s protected areas and carbon credit assets shared across various ministries and institutions.
But for those working in Keo Seima, there’s concern that this balance isn’t being struck and that unexpected mining operations could jeopardize current and future REDD+ projects in Cambodia.
“The possibility of an abrupt large-scale commercial operation like a marble mine presents challenges for the long-term viability of REDD+ projects like Keo Seima,” said Mould of WCS, adding that the Keo Seima REDD+ project played a role in the cancellation of Cambodian Basalt Investment’s exploration license.
From an ecosystem and biodiversity perspective, the mine reflected the precarious nature of what protected status means in Cambodia when a mining operation that would likely cause significant damage to a protected forest is approved by the country’s leading environmental authority.
“The mining operation could have resulted in extensive deforestation, habitat loss, and fragmentation, which in turn could disrupt wildlife movement patterns, alter waterways, and cause soil erosion, among other ecological impacts,” Mould said. “Moreover, such damage could have ripple effects, affecting the ecosystem’s resilience and the overall health of the forest that forms the bedrock of the Keo Seima REDD+ project.”
Banner image: Cambodian Basalt Investment expanded an old road, cutting deep through Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary’s core forest to reach their mining concession. Photo by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.