Secret titanium mine threatens Cambodia's most untouched forest

Although the mining consortium, United Khmer Group, has been drawing up plans to build a massive titanium mine in a Cambodian protected forest for three years, the development did not become public knowledge until rural villagers came face-to-face with bulldozers and trucks building access roads. Reaction against the secret mine was swift as environmentalists feared for the impacts on wildlife and the rivers, local villagers saw a looming threat to their burgeoning eco-tourism trade, and Cambodian newspapers began to question statements by the mining corporation. While the government has suspended the roadwork to look more closely at the mining plans, Cambodians wait in uncertainty over the fate of one of most isolated and intact ecosystems in Southeast Asia: the Cardamom Mountains.

Cardamom Mountain Range waterfall popular with ecotourists. Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Alliance.
Spreading over some 2 million hectares (5 million acres) the Cardamom Mountains contain a startling biodiversity, including some 250 bird species, half of those recorded in Cambodia. Rare species such as Malayan sun bears, Indochinese tigers, pileated gibbons, and Siamese crocodiles inhabit the region. The largest population of Asian elephants in Cambodia, numbering about a hundred individuals, also roams this region.

If built, the titanium mine will stretch some 15,000 to 20,000 hectares (37,000 to 50,000 acres) of the Cardamom Mountains. Construction of the pit will require deforestation and burial of vast amounts of waste; such waste often results in the destruction or pollution of important waterways.

Michael Zwirn, head of Wildlife Alliance's US operations, described the impact to wildlife in the region as "very serious", adding that the mine would particularly imperil freshwater species, such as the Siamese crocodile, which is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. In addition, the mine will sit right in the middle of an elephant migration route, endangering a quarter of Cambodia's wild elephants.

Map of the mining area. Click image to enlarge.
For locals the announcement of a mine in their backyard could not come at a worse time. The village of Chi Phat has spent years developing sustainable eco-tourism in the region. Many of the locals have left off poaching and logging for tourism and their efforts had begun to pay off: Lonely Planet, one of the most recognized travel guide companies in the world, named the area, known also as the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor, among the "World’s Top 10 Regions for 2010".

American tourists on birdwatching tour led from Chi Phat

Spoonbills in flight photographed from helicopter. Photos courtesy of the Wildlife Alliance.
Villagers are currently working with Wildlife Alliance on a new lodge to attract even more tourists to the once little-visited site. The conservation organization has spent over half a million US dollars to build an eco-tourism base in the area.

According to Zwirn, the town of Chi Phat is "almost universally opposed to the mine" since "communities have staked their economic development on environmentally friendly tourism". Seven hundred and sixty-six villagers, including the village chief, have already signed a petition against the mine for Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In face of opposition it has become increasingly unclear as to the status of the mine. Zwirn says that in Cambodian "ministries have sent very contradictory signals".

"It's not clear who's making some of these decisions, and it's not even clear what some of these decisions are. It's not clear how the process is being made."

Zwirn adds that a significant portion of the government appears to oppose the mine, but that may not be enough to stop it. According to reports the mine was initially approved by the Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Energy, yet the ultimate decision rests with the Ministry of Commerce.

"This is a perfect example of unplanned and uncoordinated development," Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO of Wildlife Alliance, said in a statement.

Not only the government, but the mining corporation has also faced criticism. The CEO of United Khmer Group, Chea Chet, stated that the mine would raise revenues of 2,500 US dollars a ton. However, the Phnom Penh Post, which calls Chet's assertion "frankly absurd", reports that titanium has been selling for less than a third that amount.

"Even if the ultimate revenues are far less than they promised they are still making money," Zwirn explains. No matter what profits the company makes it's not certain those funds would stay in Cambodia: Zwirn says that the project is being backed by Vietnamese and Chinese interests, but the company has refused to disclose the names of the private investors involved in the project.

Khmer burial jars (300-500 years old) in one of 12 known archaeological sites in the Cardamoms. Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Alliance.
In addition, questions have been raised as to the amount of ilmenite, which is the mineral mined for titanium production, in the area. Chea Chet has stated that United Khmer Group expects to pull up 120 million tonnes. Yet, Wildlife Alliance counters that the area was explored by another mining company, Omsaura, which estimated that only 2.5 million tonnes would be available, about 2 percent of Chet's claim.

Zwrin says that the company is playing "classic bait and switch". By "vastly overstating the [expected] revenues" United Khmer Group is using visions of riches to pressure the government for approval.

Map of the mining area. Click image to enlarge.
Conservationists fear that if this titanium mine is approved it will open the door to a variety of industrial projects in the region ultimately devastating one of Southeast Asia's last pristine forests. The Phnom Penh Post reports that if the titanium mine is successfully approved, China is planning three to four more mines covering 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) in the Cardamom Mountains.


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