The other company, Evergreen Success & Asia Resort Development, was given a concession of 2,377 hectares.
Evergreen Success is tied to Hun To, a nephew of the prime minister, who has been investigated by the Australian authorities in connection with drug smuggling and money laundering. According to a 2012 report in The Age newspaper, To was of interest to Operation Illipango, an Australian investigation into heroin concealed in Cambodian timber shipments. Plans to arrest To were derailed when the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh cancelled his travel visa.
To has since become a co-director of the Lixin Group, a Taiwanese construction and property company that has already developed a hotel in Sihanoukville under the US-based brand Wyndham.
Lixin is heavily promoting its “New City” development in Ream National Park. An advertisement on the resort’s WeChat channel from September emphasised the eco-tourism side of the project. But plans for the resort include massive developments inside the park, from a golf resort and a horse racing track to casinos and hotels, all flanked by mangroves.
Yeejia’s rise in Cambodia has also depended on elite contacts. Company chair Fu Xianting’s resumé includes time in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and then in state-owned companies, one of which brought him to Cambodia for a conference on agricultural machinery and light manufacturing.
According to a 2016 Financial Times investigation, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers revoked Fu’s concession in Ream after concerns about forest clearance from environmental groups. But Fu, who has close personal ties to Hun Sen, met with the Cambodian leader and obtained his support for continued development.
Yeejia’s development plans for Golden Silver Bay range from casinos and luxury hotels to a conference centre and medical rehabilitation facilities. Its WeChat social media presence shows it is advertising to Chinese developers seeking a slice of Cambodia, as well as to tourists. In November, Yeejia held a small ground-breaking ceremony with Zhonghai Tianhong Real Estate (Cambodia), which has leased 4 hectares of land from the developer on a 99-year lease – the same timespan as Yeejia’s 2008 concession within the park. This is despite the fact that, according to Cambodian law, concessions cannot be sold to another company without a new contract being drawn up with the government.
Neither Yeejia nor Lixin would respond to requests for comment from China Dialogue.
Beyond the bulldozers currently clearing land in the name of tourism, illegal logging for timber has continued in Ream. Chantha, the community activist, says the state-employed park rangers conduct frequent patrols, but will release loggers who pay them. Chantha has accompanied the patrols and claims to have witnessed bribe-taking.
According to the 2001 de Lopez report, about half of rural households inside the park engaged in illegal logging in the past. Chantha and other villagers admit to cutting trees for their own use before Yeejia officials stopped them.
But things are different now. “The Ministry of Environment officials blame the community for deforestation, but it’s not us,” he says. “It’s someone outside and hired by some oknha (tycoons) or rich businessman to come clear land here.”
Meanwhile, the coast of Ream and the rest of Preah Sihanouk province is also under threat. Ouk Vibol, director of conservation in Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration, says overfishing is a significant challenge, with trawlers scooping up whatever fish they can find, destroying seagrass beds in the process. The loss of mangroves due to the park’s tourism developments is also having a big impact on fish stocks, says Ouk.
“If you destroy one habitat, there are real negative impacts on the species that move from one habitat to another.”
Just outside the national park, a little-known Chinese–Cambodian company, Canopy Sands Development, has undertaken a massive coastal reclamation project on 427 hectares granted by the Cambodian government. The company was formed one month before it received the land. Its shareholders also chair powerful companies in Cambodia, including Prince Group, whose China-born director, Chen Zhi, has obtained Cambodian citizenship through his investments.
This and other developments along the coast, which once boasted waters teeming with lucrative squid, crab and fish, have changed local fishers’ lives.
Docking just north of the Canopy Sands development, 27 year old Chan Ra says he has to be very careful where he drops his fishing lines. The traditional gear he uses to catch squid is made with large shells strung out along a line. The squid nestle into the shells for shelter without the need for bait. The shells are durable but expensive and are often damaged by the sand-dredging boats filling the Canopy Sands area, says Ra. There are still some squid to be found close to the shore, but the fisher says he has to travel further to catch crabs.
Ra lives mostly on his boat these days, because another company has been reclaiming land from the sea on the bay where he used to live. “Before we could reach home by boat, but now they’re filling it with land,” he says.
Ra has had to move three times due to development projects. Like many local people, he built a home without procuring an official land title – a requirement that was seldom enforced until land prices began to climb.
Nowhere is safe
32 year old Nam Then runs a small shop selling sundries on a hillside a couple of kilometres from the entrance to Yeejia’s concession. He has not been directly impacted by the long-running dispute between local people and the Chinese company, whose concession overlaps their customary land. But he shares his neighbours’ concerns and attends meetings about the issue at the Ream commune office.
“We share information around the community,” he says. “We are the same people who have the same affections. I am also living in one part of the community, just in a different area.”
In June last year, the government finally allocated land and promised titles to the three communities in the park affected by Yeejia’s concession. Details have yet to be worked out, however. Then keeps a plastic folder full of documents showing the outlines of plots. Some families are missing out, he says, but he and others are watching the process closely.
Then moved to his current home and shop in 2007 after Ream Naval Academy – part of a military branch that is caught up in controversies over Chinese versus US access – decided to expand into the land near where his family lived.
“Looking back at 2007, we didn’t have anything, the people were weak, information systems didn’t exist, and we were living in a military zone, so when you’re trying to protest, there was big pressure (on us),” he says.
The family’s current home is on the other side of the same mountain. They have remained relatively undisturbed since they moved, but, on a morning in late January, Then told reporters that much of the land facing his house had been cleared. He was not sure what for. When reporters passed his house again at dusk, a digger was forging a new road around the mountain, leading back to the naval academy.
When he first moved in, Then recalls: “It was all forest, huge forest, there wasn’t any road yet.” Now, for the villagers of Ream “it’s very difficult, because the houses are all on company land.”