Facing claims from conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance that its proposed $75 million, 5,000-hectare plantation would, in fact, disrupt and endanger elephant migration in Koh Kong province, an Australian company has denied the claims and has even been joined by two other conservation groups.
Indochina Gateway Capital Limited has moved to counter recent assertions made by Wildlife Alliance and a forestry official that the company’s plans for a banana plantation would force elephants into dangerous interaction with humans by blocking a so-called “elephant corridor” in Koh Kong that connects Kirirom National Park with another conservation area in the Cardamom Mountains.
Responding to the criticism, Alastair Walton, chairman of Indochina Gateway, said the plantation would be located in an area already deforested by a Chinese firm’s logging concession in 1994, and that Wildlife Alliance’s opposition to the project was factually unsupported. Additionally, Indochina Gateway would create a 20,000-hectare reforested preserve that would aid, not hinder, conservation in Koh Kong, he said.
“We don’t agree with their findings. The evidence is such that there is a real question mark over the elephants. I think it’s a straw man, and the analysis done by others would suggest that we are correct….We don’t believe there is an elephant issue,” he said.
Although Wildlife Alliance has stood by its claims, two conservation NGOs—Fauna & Flora International and Conservation International—agreed with the company that the plantation in Thmar Baing district would not sever a migration route or directly endanger elephants.
Both FFI and CI said that Indochina Gateway’s plan could actually benefit wildlife if executed properly, but cautioned that certain aspects of the plan needed more study.
Public disagreements between conservation NGOs are rare. The case underscores the sharp debate over striking a balance between agricultural development in Cambodia with environmental conservation.
Critics say that the more than a million hectares of agricultural concessions here often come at the expense of the environment by clear-cutting forests or other unsustainable practices.
Mr Walton said Indochina Gateway had already consulted NGOs to change the proposed boundaries of the concessions to protect wildlife, including critically endangered Siamese crocodiles native to the area.
Revenues from the company’s projects could reach $75 million a year, with 5 percent of profits funding a private, independently run foundation that would oversee the conservation area, Mr Walton said. The plantation would also create 7,000 jobs.
The proposal will need approval from several ministries, including the Agriculture Ministry.
“The proposed banana plantation would not pose a direct danger to elephants,” said Stephen van der Mark, country director of Fauna & Flora International, which specializes in elephants. Researchers have found ample evidence of an elephant presence north of the plantation between the Cardamoms and Kirirom.
“We do not believe that the plantation would significantly obstruct elephants from moving through the wider landscape,” he wrote in an e-mail.
In the past 10 years, researchers have recorded only six instances of elephants on the proposed concession lands, with no evidence those elephants were migrating, he wrote.
He expressed more concern that the project could endanger the breeding grounds of critically endangered Siamese crocodiles if the plantation’s planned borders are not changed. He also said that, although a significant portion of forest cover in the area is heavily degraded, the company must still conduct more studies on the issue.
“Conversion of natural and semi-natural habitat to plantation inevitably impacts on individual species and habitat connectivity. The key question here is whether habitat conservation and forest regeneration surrounding the plantation could lead to a net benefit for people and wildlife, something which remains to be determined and would benefit from further assessment,” he said, adding that any loss of habitat is a concern.
He added that FFI recognizes the need for economic development and has offered Indochina Gateway recommendations, but is not formally working with the company.
David Emmett, regional director of Conservation International, which stopped working directly in the area in 2010, said Indochina Gateway presented a useful alternative to projects that ignore conservation altogether, and could potentially set a new, “ground-breaking” standard for environmentally sound agricultural investment.
Mr Emmett took issue with Wildlife Alliance’s claims, agreeing with Mr Walton that elephants were being used without attention to science, and that the majority of the proposed plantation area was not forested.
“If you look at the map and where the forest cover is and if you look
at where this plantation is going to be, it looks more likely that
there will be no real conflict at all,” Mr Emmett said, adding that elephants are sometimes used to win the public’s sympathy.
“Sometimes elephants are put into the argument to stir up emotions and public feelings and that not always the way to go. You have to be scientific,” he added.
But John Maloy, communications director for Wildlife Alliance, claimed the deforested area was already experiencing regeneration and providing some contiguous forest coverage used by elephants for migration.
“We know they are there. We know that is forest. There needs to be more study. There’s absolutely no question about that,” he said. “We’d much rather err on the side if caution and keep that preserved.”
The amount of evidence may be small, he said, but part of the disagreement among NGOs comes down to philosophy. Wildlife Alliance focuses more on protecting a broader contiguous forest cover, he said.
Mr Maloy also defended Wildlife Alliance against claims it was manipulating emotions by invoking elephants.
“I don’t think that’s fair, but that said, if you push people on the notion of Royal Turtles it’s not going to have the same effect on people,” he said.
“We are glad that Indochina Gateway is considering conservation options and is taking steps toward conservation in the area but it does ring a bit hollow when they simultaneously seem to be planning to sever the main artery the corridor at the same time,” he added.
Vann Sophanna, chief of the Forestry Administration’s Northern Tonle Sap lake inspectorate, said last week that the plan would hurt wildlife. He could not be reached yesterday.
Thun Sarath, spokesman for the Forestry Administration, said the Agriculture Ministry always considered conservation concerns before approving concessions. The ministry will study this proposal and will take into account recommendations from both Wildlife Alliance and FFI before making a decision, he said.
“These two NGOs should work together on evaluating that site,” he said. “If it affects the elephants, we should find a solution.”
With $75 million in potential annual revenue, the plantation would add significantly to Cambodian agricultural exports, which reached $118 million in 2010 according to Commerce Ministry data, which excludes large amounts of smuggling. Vietnam, by comparison, is almost twice the geographic size of Cambodia, but exported $19.8 billion in agricultural products in 2010.
Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association, said that Cambodia had the capacity to increase agricultural output significantly but had fallen behind, particularly with high-value crops like bananas.
“As Cambodia cannot compete easily with China, Vietnam, and Malaysia in manufacturing, we should look into more potential in the agricultural sector where we have comparative advantage,” he said, adding that finding a balance between development and biodiversity was not always an easy task.
Yang Saing Koma, president of Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, said that, though the law required the government to take conservation into consideration, in reality that did not always happen.
“Often companies clear the forest on a large scale and they are very destructive and create a lot pollution for the watershed. We have to be very careful,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)
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