Cambodia: Save Koh Kong Island!

Waves wash over a beach on Koh Kong Island, Cambodia Mangrove forests, crystal clear sea, white beaches: the paradise that is Koh Kong Island (© Mother Nature) Boulder-lined watercourse surrounded by tropical forest A rocky stream bed running through the lush lowland rainforests (© Mother Nature) Eight young activists set off on their bicycles Mother Nature activists' bicycle rally to raise awareness of the threat to Koh Kong (© Mother Nature) Activists talking to police officers who are loading their bikes onto a truck. An officer is photographing the scene. Police stopped them after a short ride and confiscated their bikes (© Mother Nature)

Unspoiled places with rich biodiversity on land and underwater still exist, even in an otherwise brutally deforested country like Cambodia. Koh Kong Island is such an untouched place – one that the government now wants to “develop”. Please support our Cambodian partners' call to make Koh Kong a national park.

Call to action

To: Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia; H.E. Say Samal, Minister of Environment; H.E. Thong Khon, Minister of Tourism

“Ensure Koh Kong Island’s full protection to preserve its natural treasures.”

Read letter

Koh Kong, Cambodia’s largest island, is a slice of paradise with its lush tropical lowland rainforests, waterfalls and freshwater lagoons, white beaches and mangroves. “We’re proud that such an amazing place, which was left to us by our Khmer ancestors, still exists. Now it’s up to our generation to preserve these priceless natural treasures,” explains Thun Ratha in a video by the environmental NGO Mother Nature that highlights the island's beauty. “Save Koh Kong Island” is their campaign to defend this unique place against exploitation. Saving the island for posterity will mean ensuring its complete protection.

Cambodia’s government apparently has other plans – in June 2019, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the L.Y.P. Group had been given the green light to “develop” the island. The group’s holdings include luxury resorts, amusement parks, sugar and rubber plantations and other businesses.

Conservationists therefore fear the worst. While the Environment Ministry announced that the island and its surroundings would become a marine national park in 2021, previous statements indicated that some regions would be protected, while others would be declared economic zones.

“As we have seen before in Cambodia, when the government gives development rights to a private company, the natural resources are destroyed with little benefit to the local community,” says Long Kunthea of Mother Nature. Not even national parks are entirely safe from destruction.

In June 2020, activists set out on a five-day journey on bicycles aimed to raise awareness and deliver a petition to the government. Officers stopped them and confiscated their bikes. Since then, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and one other Mother Nature activist have been in jail.

Please support their demand to save Koh Kong Island.

Back­ground

Koh Kong Island

Koh Kong is Cambodia's largest island and belongs to the province of the same name in the west of the country. At 103 square kilometers, it is about twice the size of Manhattan and has a coastline of 53 kilometers.

A little-known island – even among Cambodians – Koh Kong is only accessible by boat. It has very few residents, even though its northeastern coast is less than 500 meters from the mainland village of Lam Dam in the community of Koh Kapik.

There is a military base on the northern tip, as well as small military outposts with one or two houses on some beaches. In the southeast is the fishing village of Alatang, with about 80 families who live in floating houses in a small bay off the coast. The villagers use a pond fed by waterfalls as a source of fresh water.

Undisturbed nature

The island is covered by lush tropical lowland rainforests. There are numerous waterfalls, rocky creek beds and freshwater lagoons that meet the sea on white beaches through narrow estuaries flanked by mangroves. The island’s natural beauty continues underwater, with seagrass meadows and coral reefs inhabited by tropical fish.

Threats

Although selective logging was carried out in the past and the island is occasionally the target of poachers, Koh Kong's nature remains largely intact to this day. However, existential threats are now looming on the horizon: 

Recently, heavy machinery was brought in to build a road. Currently about 6,300 meters long, the road starts at the military base at the northern end of the island and heads south. There are rumors that the road could be extended over the entire length of the island of 20 kilometers. Experience has shown that roads through previously untouched forest attract loggers and poachers, not to mention property speculators, as has frequently been the case in Cambodia. Once that stage is reached, nothing stands in the way of wholesale deforestation.

Environmentalists fear that extending the road is just the beginning. In June 2019, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the government’s intention to develop the island economically, and a committee was formed for this purpose under the leadership of the Ministry of the Environment. Koh Kong SEZ Co Ltd, a private company belonging to the L.Y.P. Group of Ly Yong Phat, one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Cambodia, was commissioned with the development. The group’s portfolio includes hotels and luxury resorts, amusement parks and golf courses, sugar and rubber plantations, real estate and a television station. 

Environmentalists therefore fear that the “development” of the island will spell the end for Koh Kong’s intact nature. Luxury hotels are already being discussed.

The Ministry of the Environment announced that the island would be declared a marine national park in 2021 because of its great biodiversity and beautiful beaches. Nevertheless, the government gave Koh Kong SEZ Co Ltd permission to develop the island. The spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment would not divulge details.

“As we have seen before in Cambodia, when the government gives development rights to a private company, the natural resources are destroyed with little benefit to the local community,” explained Mother Nature environmentalist Long Kunthea in an article in Camboja News on June 23, 2020. Long Kunthea called on the government to cancel Koh Kong SEZ Co Ltd’s permit and put the entire island under protection. Suon Chamroeun, who took part in a bicycle rally to protect Koh Kong Island in early June, told the Phnom Penh Post: “We are still concerned because, in our mind, development means destruction. It is a concern we have for the future because Koh Kong SEZ Co Ltd’s specific plan is still blurry.”

An example of this is the neighboring Botum Sakor National Park, which experienced shockingly high deforestation rates in the last 15 years under the pretext of several “economic land concessions” and “special economic zones”.

Campaign goal

The Save Koh Kong Island campaign aims to raise awareness of the beauty and significance of this special island so that it can be preserved in its natural state for future generations.
Mother Nature activists want the Ministry of the Environment to declare the entire island of Koh Kong a national park so that it can be legally protected and fully preserved. The environmentalists are firmly opposed to any development that could have negative effects on the island, and if development is required, only sustainable and environmentally friendly options should be considered, such as promoting it as an eco-tourism area.

Environmentalists in danger

Anyone who publicly campaigns for nature conservation and human rights in Cambodia faces repression, intimidation and the threat of jail. The activists of Mother Nature (MN) have experienced this for years:

  • On September 3, 2020, MN campaigner Thun Ratha and his colleagues Long Kunthea and Phuong Keorasmey were arrested in Phnom Penh for organizing a peaceful march to the Prime Minister’s residence to draw attention to the filling-in of Boeung Tamoke Lake for a military base. 300 families rely on the lake for their livelihoods. The activists were charged with “incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security”. The three environmentalists, who are also the organizers of the Save Koh Kong campaign, remain in jail.
  • On June 22, 2020, 10 MN members organized a public photo exhibition about nature on Koh Kong in front of Wat Botum Pagoda to raise awareness of the island’s beauty. Security guards immediately shut down the demonstration. They were also forbidden to stream the event live on Facebook. The authorities claimed that this would require a permit.
  • On June 1,2020, 18 MN activists and young people set out on a five-day bicycle ride from Koh Kong to the capital Phnom Penh to deliver a petition to the government. Already on the second day, they were stopped by provincial officials who confiscated their bikes.

These are just three of the most recent examples of how environmentalists and human rights activists are silenced in Cambodia. Rainforest Rescue has supported Mother Nature from the outset:

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Cambodia: selling out its natural resources

The kingdom on the Mekong has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation: According to Mongabay, NASA satellite images of central Cambodia show that between 2001 and 2014, 16,000 square kilometers of highly biodiverse lowland rainforest were cleared, mainly to make way for rubber plantations. The country has barely three percent of its old-growth rainforest left.

The government has been granting concessions to timber and plantation companies for years, and rubber plantations in particular have expanded rapidly. But systematic deforestation by the timber industry with the government’s blessing is not the only problem for biodiversity: The extent of illegal clearing is much greater – according to one study, it accounts for 90 percent of timber production. 

This makes it all the more important to preserve Koh Kong Island while it is still virtually pristine.

Letter

To: Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia; H.E. Say Samal, Minister of Environment; H.E. Thong Khon, Minister of Tourism

Gentlemen,

We, the undersigned, support the tens of thousands of Cambodians who have publicly expressed their interest in protecting Cambodia’s largest and most beautiful island, Koh Kong.

We call on you to:

• revoke the agreement the Royal Government of Cambodia has signed with the company Koh Kong SEZ to ‘develop’ Koh Kong, which was concluded in secrecy and without consulting any relevant stakeholders. The people of Cambodia, and in particular communities from the province where this stunning island is located, stand to benefit much more from the preservation of the island in its current form than from its development;

• classify the whole island as well as the surrounding sea waters around it as a National Park that is off limits to any form of destructive development; We do not believe that the current model of development Cambodia is seeing in many of its other once-pristine islands and protected areas to be a positive example to follow;

• conduct, in cooperation with local communities, environmental activists as well as national and international organizations, thorough feasibility studies on how the island might welcome a limited a number of visitors in a manner that has as little effect on the island’s environment as possible;

• collaborate with relevant expert stakeholders in and outside the country to turn the island and the stunning mangrove forests around it into a regional hub for ecological research, and to consider the possibility on how the island might be used as a pilot project for the rewilding of key species of wildlife that can eventually be scaled up to the rest of the country;

• immediately cease repression against Cambodian environmental activists who have publicly spoken out for the conservation of the island as it currently is. We particularly call on you to free Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuon Keorasmey, the three recently-jailed Mother Nature Cambodia activists who were leading the campaign to protect the stunning island of Koh Kong.

Yours faithfully

Footnotes

Koh Kong IslandKoh Kong Island belongs to the province of the same name in western Cambodia. At 103 square kilometers, it is about twice the size of Manhattan, and has a coastline of 53 kilometers.


Mother NatureMother Nature is an environmental NGO active in Cambodia and internationally which is dedicated to preserving and protecting nature. The organization exposes unlawful environmental destruction and the perpetrators behind it, works to raise awareness, and backs the environmental movement with workshops and financial support. They also back local people such as farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous communities in their struggles to protect their human rights, land rights, culture and livelihoods:
https://www.mothernaturecambodia.org/about-us.html



L.Y.P. Group Group websiteThe L.Y.P. Group belongs to the entrepreneur Ly Yong Phat, one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Cambodia:
https://www.lypgroup.com/index.php


marine national park New committee created to protect Koh Kong Krao – Phnom Penh Post, June 7, 2020:
https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/new-committee-created-protect-koh-kong-krao


As said earlier Quote by Koh Kong Provincial Department of Environment Director Morm Phalla, Phnom Penh Post, July 23, 2019
https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/activists-launch-rescue-island-campaign-koh-kong-krao


Long Kunthea of Mother Nature.Demonstration for conservation of Koh Kong island shut down – Camboja News, June 23, 2020
https://cambojanews.com/demonstration-for-conservation-of-koh-kong-island-shut- down /


Bicycle rallyDemonstration for conservation of Koh Kong island shut down – Camboja News, June 23, 2020
https://cambojanews.com/demonstration-for-conservation-of-koh-kong-island-shut-down/


detained.Three Environmental Rights Defenders Arbitrarily Detained – Frontline Defenders, Sept. 6, 2020: https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/three-environmental-rights-defenders-arbitrarily-detained

Three Mother Nature activists charged with incitement – Camboja News, Sept. 6, 2020:
https://cambojanews.com/three-mother-nature-activists-charged-with-incitement/

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