Dispute Brewing Around Proposed Ecotourism Airport

7 min read
Two local residents point out villagers’ farms falling within the potential bounds of a new airport development in Mondulkiri province. (VOD/Danielle Keeton-Olsen)

O’REANG DISTRICT, Mondulkiri province — With guards standing by, threatening to quash any potential protest, an excavator dug closer to the Bunong communal burial grounds, villagers recalled.

“If they come any closer, they will be digging the graveyard,” said Panh, a local shopkeeper.

The residents had heard plans to build an airport in Mondulkiri to drive ecotourism for years, but this construction was much closer to their village than local authorities ever hinted.

The Tourism Ministry appears rearing to move forward on the long-stagnant plan to build an airport in Mondulkiri, and some tourism businesses are eager for the opportunity. But on the ground in O’Reang District, officials seem evasive on the subject, causing residents to fear their land will soon be confiscated.

When they realized that officials were acting on the dormant proposal to build an airport, residents surrounded the construction to confront workers, recalled a 29-year-old farmer who wished to remain anonymous, fearing local authorities would cause trouble for her.

“As soon as we showed up to question them, they left the equipment there and moved to work at another location,” she said at her home, just a few hundred meters from the burial ground. She recalled that the workers had threatened they would suppress any protests by the villagers.

“So we grew suspicious that the airport project does not belong to the government, but more to the private sector.”

The woman said she and other residents were willing to tolerate a previously disclosed plan to develop 300 hectares, but if it was expanded to 600 hectares, as she had heard in a meeting between residents and the team initiating the airport, it would hurt a lot of the village. She has a soft title officiating the land sale between her and the previous owner, but she doesn’t have an official land title that would be recognized by the government. The shopkeeper, Panh, only has a soft title too, and Adhoc’s Mondulkiri representative Eang Mengly said many residents in the area have the same issue, though he does not yet know how many families will be impacted. The residents — most of whom are indigenous Bunong — are also worried about the development’s proximity to their ancestral burial ground, an important ceremonial space where most residents have buried a relative.

Daramey, a 48-year-old farmer who grows pring and other fruits in the area near the proposed airport, recalled how some villagers burst into tears upon learning their land would have to be sold back to the government. During the meeting, the visiting officials — whom he could not identify — said they would buy land for $1,000 per hectare, which Daramey called cheap. He said that others already had land taken from them, but this could not be independently verified.

But Daramey shrugged off the development, saying he was happy: His land surrounds the proposed airport, so he expects the development will increase the value of his land — though he only has soft titles.

When she described the meeting, Panh affirmed that the officials — whom she did not know but guessed were from Phnom Penh — said residents with land could receive about $1,000 per hectare once the plan was approved. However, she has not yet been offered any compensation, and she fears the soft land title will not entitle her to any payment.

Acting district chief Seak Money said local authorities were working closely with the Tourism Ministry to conduct a land assessment and demarcation for the planned project. Money said the airport construction project had been discussed for nearly seven years, and so far officials recorded 25 complaints from families who own land within the site, with about six of them being new complaints following the working group meeting. The complaints would be resolved after the feasibility study was completed, Money said.

After several years of little action on the airport, Adhoc’s Mengly noted that the development’s pace had picked up “really fast.”

“This is going to start affecting people really soon,” he said.

In April, the Finance Ministry gave the Tourism Ministry and Mondulkiri authorities permission to study the possibility of building an airport in the richly forested province, but officials could still reject the idea if they deem it unnecessary, said Chuk Chumnor, a Tourism Ministry spokesman. He wouldn’t disclose the proposed size or developer of the airport, saying that would be determined after the feasibility study, though Sinn Chansereyvutha, spokesman for the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation, said the airport would be 300 hectares.

A 300-hectare airport would be comparable in size to Cambodia’s existing airports in Phnom Penh and Preah Sihanouk province, which occupy 385 and 400 hectares respectively.

This is going to start affecting people really soon.

Eang Mengly, Adhoc

Increasingly ambitious airport plans have accompanied tourism developments and expanding demand for land. Earlier this year, Cambodia Airports announced a $21-million expansion of its Sihanoukville airport, creating the longest runway in the country so Cambodia can receive wide-body, long-haul airplanes. And last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed an agreement with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for the construction of a new, massive airport outside the capital, in Kandal Province, which would skirt the country’s exclusive airport operation contract with France’s Vinci Group.

Without any speculation yet on the size or circulation of the airport, businesses in Mondulkiri see an airport as advantageous.

Tourism to Mondulkiri is rising on the whole, with total domestic and international visitors increasing by 18 percent from 2017 to last year, according to statistics provided by the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents. More than 91,000 domestic tourists have visited the province in 2019 alone, though foreign tourist counts are significantly lower at 8,024 so far.

Mondulkiri’s tourism is dwarfed by Cambodia’s popular destinations like Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. But the government has been investing in building infrastructure that would make the northeastern province more attractive as a destination. And most recently, the national government pumped $10 million into the development of a recreational park in Mondulkiri that will display the province’s natural resources as well as indigenous culture.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, said domestic tourists were increasingly escaping to the lush province in recent years, but international tourists would be more enticed to visit if there was airport access.

“From what I have gathered from international travelers throughout my meetings abroad, they are very much interested in extending their trip to the Northeast of Cambodia,” she said in an email. “However, the long-hour traveling method has always been a major hindrance to successfully attract them to visit this part of the country.”

Improvements to National Road 76, which cuts through Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, dramatically increased tourism after 2008, said Than Phearakech, a guide for Mondulkiri Eco Tours. So he thinks that even though an airport would displace some people, it would be a boon for the province overall.

“[An airport] would destroy one block of land, but not all. Of course we have huge land and forest in Mondulkiri, so the development means more tourists, more jobs for the local people,” Phearakech said.

Some of the wealthiest visitors to Mondulkiri can arrive by helicopter, but Corinne Darquey, the general manager of luxury resort Mayura Hill, said she had only seen two tourists do so in the two years she worked at the hotel.

Rather, she worries whether an influx in tourists would degrade the natural beauty of Mondulkiri, citing Sihanoukville’s rapid development into a gambling tourism hub as an example.

“The more people we have coming here, the more quickly the nature is going to disappear,” she said. “I hope I’m wrong about this.”

The people who will be most impacted by the proposed airport, however, are the residents near the site. The 29-year-old farmer who spoke of her anxieties about the project said her means of subsistence would be destroyed if the airport continued to be built in the proposed spot, as would many other residents’ livelihoods. Growing crops and raising cows is her sole source of income, and she was overwhelmed by the thought of losing the foundation of her already at-times precarious existence.

“We are very concerned about this,” she said. The airport development, trampling over her land and ancestral burial grounds, “would be like having our last breath taken away.”

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