From large tracts of rural land to sand from the country’s rivers to human hair, a host of Cambodia’s natural resources are on display in the shop window of China’s largest online trading website.
Alibaba.com—which claims more than 80 million users worldwide and is growing in popularity in Cambodia—links up suppliers, who pay fees to advertise on the site, with buyers that range from large businesses to individuals.
But browsing the items for sale from Cambodia on the website resembles a guide to the ills often blamed for blighting the country’s development and its business environment.
“I have a plot of concession land for sales [sic]. It’s good for rubber plantation,” reads an advertisement from Seng Hout Trading, which has an office in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district.
“If you are looking for big land with very cheap price for lease or purchase then please feel free to contact me.”
The advertisement claims that Seng Hout can supply 10,000 hectares of land for $450 to $500 per hectare.
Lim Theng, a sales manager at the company, confirmed that the firm owned an economic land concession for a rubber plantation. “It is not legal to sell the concession,” he admitted. “But I’m looking for a JV [joint venture], not to sell [the land].”
“I get [investors from] many countries by that website, not only in Asia but from the States and Europe,” he added.
While some sellers list their industry as “apparel,” “agriculture” or “food & beverage,” almost a quarter of Cambodian suppliers on the site are in the “beauty & personal care” sector, according to Alibaba Group figures.
Many of the companies in the latter category are responsible for the dozens of advertisements claiming to offer “100 percent virgin” human hair from Cambodia, which is used for hair extensions.
Steven Chow, a sales manager at Loks Industrial Limited, a Guangzhou-based company selling hair from Cambodia, said in an email that prices are as high as $80 for an 85-cm bundle of Cambodian hair.
Mr. Chow declined to say how the hair was collected in Cambodia, saying only, “we have [a] supplier there.”
Middlemen are known to scour Cambodia’s provinces buying hair from the heads of the indigent.
There are even advertisements on the site for luxury grade timber such as rosewood from Cambodia, which is protected under the country’s forestry law. Several agents claiming to sell the wood using Alibaba.com said they were unaware of the source of the wood they were offering for sale.
Some sellers also list the sale of Cambodian river sand, the export of which is banned due to the devastating effects river dredging has on the environment.
“We are the suppliers of river sand from Vietnam (the original exploitation from Cambodia). We can delivery [sic] a large quantity with the competitive price,” reads an advertisement on the site from the Vietnam-based Le Tan Kiet company.
Contacted by email, Mr. Tan Kiet initially confirmed that sand came from the Mekong River, but retracted this when asked about the legality of the product. “I [know] the exporting dredged sand is prohibited in Cambodia from 2009. Really, the sand I have now [does] not come from Mekong River,” he said.
Figures from Alibaba Group, the company that owns the site, show that 26 percent of buyer inquiries made though the site to Cambodian sellers come from the U.S., while 10 percent are registered as coming from China. Only 3 percent of users making enquiries to Cambodian sellers are from inside Cambodia.
There are also a number of companies based in Thailand selling replicas of Khmer-style statues and trinkets.
Pamela Munoz, a communications officer at Alibaba Group in Hong Kong, said that since the site was launched in 1999 the Chinese have gradually bought more goods through the site.
“[W]e have seen an increase in buyers from China versus their traditional role as simply being suppliers,” she said. “Our other markets like Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia are mostly suppliers…trying to reach international buyers through e-commerce.”
At the end of June, there were more than 21,000 users, both buyers and sellers, registered as based in Cambodia, up from only about 9,000 in 2010, she added.
Ms. Munoz said the site could not ensure that all products come from legal sources.
“We’re a user-content created platform. We have more than 80 million registered users, so for us to mediate all our users is like Facebook trying to check on all its users,” she said.
The site does have “gold,” “verified” and “unverified” categories to let buyers know how reliable the supplier in question actually is, Ms. Munoz explained. The system is designed to allow buyers to decide which companies to trust.
She said that Alibaba Group was willing to investigate if particular products listed on the site caused concern, and noted that the company had proactively banned the sale of shark fins, which are used in Chinese soups.
Still, companies are more or less free to pitch their enterprises, however unusual, on the site.
Another Cambodian company, Cam Greenland Co. Ltd., seeks “An international mining company that is looking for new mine sites expansion.”
“Cambodia has untapped natural resources such as copper ore, iron ore, coal and other mineral sources for licensing and exploitations [sic],” the advertisement continues.
Frederick Mamuth, a director at Cam Greenland, denied responsibility for the advertisement and said he had been convinced to publish it by “unreliable people” and was now planning to remove it.
Vannak Chan, director of Cambodia International Export and Import, who advertises Cambodian rice for export on Alibaba.com, said his experience with the website had been less than positive.
“The people [who get in touch] are not very serious, not the real potential buyers,” he said, adding that most of the potential buyers who contacted him had come from Africa and that he had spent roughly $3,000 a year on advertising through the site.
© 2012 – 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.