- A buying spree by Cambodia’s wealthy and politically connected elites has put the fate of a string of small islands in the balance, affecting the livelihoods of local fishers.
- Resort developments threaten the Koh S’dach archipelago’s seagrass and coral ecosystems, which harbor rare and threatened marine life.
- Local fishers have also found themselves locked out of their traditional fishing grounds by the developers, leading to a loss of earnings.
- This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network where Gerald Flynn is a fellow.
KOH S’DACH, Cambodia — Bristling with coral reefs, marine life and palm trees, the islands dotting Cambodia’s western and southwestern coasts have long lured tourists and investors alike with white sandy beaches sloping into the azure waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
Beyond the postcard views, limited regulation and the availability of 99-year leases for fully foreign-owned companies have made these archipelagos a magnet for tourism magnates who, along with fugitives and government officials, have sought to cash in on the coast’s potential since the 2000s.
Speculative island purchases ran rampant as Cambodia’s tourism industry grew, with islands bought up and sold on again throughout the 2010s. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, brought much of this to an abrupt halt.
But as the pandemic’s grip on Cambodia loosened, Kay Samroum, chairman of the Koh Kong provincial council, announced on Feb. 4, 2022, that nine of the province’s 35 islands were slated for development. Details for the future of the province’s 237-kilometer (147-mile) coastline and its inhabitants are sparse.
That same day, a deputy provincial governor, Sok Sothy, talked up the potential of the yet-to-be finished Dara Sakor international airport to serve Koh Kong’s tourism industry, although the airport’s Chinese developers have been mired in controversy.
Then, on Feb. 6, Ouk Pheaktra, another of Koh Kong’s deputy provincial governors, took a delegation from the Council of the Development of Cambodia to a number of islands where investment licenses had already been issued and called on the licensees to expedite their projects.
One of these islands listed by the provincial authorities is Koh Toteung, some 30 minutes west off Koh Kong’s coast by fishing boat. It’s nestled within the Koh S’dach archipelago, a string of islands rich in biodiversity and, until recently, largely undeveloped.
The 80-hectare (198-acre) island was previously home to Nomad’s Land, a successful ecotourism resort that had been the island’s sole hotel since 2008.
The previous management team of Nomad’s Land declined to speak with Mongabay about the island’s fate, which was sealed on March 18, 2022, when the provincial governor, Mithona Puthong, annulled all land titles on Koh Toteung.
This move came just one day after the governor awarded development rights to the island to a company called Den Nokor, which is expected to build a new ecotourism resort after demolishing Nomad’s Land.
Established on Dec. 30, 2021, Den Nokor operates out of the Ministry of Land Management’s building, with Hour Kolvoan listed as the company’s CEO and Chou Soklin as its technical director. The pair are childhood friends, having attended the same high school, and both developed strong ties to the Cambodian government over the course of their careers.
Kolvoan has worked in government since at least 2001, and has been with the Ministry of Land Management since 2016, where he directs the department of social land concessions. Soklin, by contrast, directs a range of engineering and construction companies, but has also worked for Orkide Villa, a luxury housing project mired in controversy over the in-filling of Phnom Penh’s lakes and wetlands. The pair declined to comment on Den Nokor’s plans for Koh Toteung.
But while the company developing Koh Toteung remains silent, the project’s impact can be seen clearly in satellite images, which paint a bleak picture for the island and the marine ecosystems it supports.
A 2020 report by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) described the Koh S’dach archipelago as having “a broad range of marine habitats, spanning islands covered by rainforest and fringed by diverse coral reefs, seagrass meadows inhabited by numerous threatened seahorse species and a population of incredibly rare sponges.”
Home to both Hippocampus kuda and Hippocampus trimaculatus seahorses, which are protected species under Cambodian law, Koh Toteung is “a crucially important site,” according to FFI, whose assessment suggests the island has the largest seagrass habitat in the archipelago.
Surveys conducted by FFI show that within the archipelago, coral reefs fringe most of the islands, including Koh Toteung, Koh S’mach, Koh Ampil and Koh S’dach. A January 2020 survey found that northern parts of the archipelago had the highest hard coral cover observed anywhere in Cambodia.
Koh Toteung is particularly crucial for marine life as the only island within the Koh S’dach archipelago home to seagrass meadows dense enough and undisturbed by seasons for seahorses to thrive in, said Jess Kalisiak, co-author of a recent study on H. kuda seahorses in the Koh Sdach archipelago.
“It is thought that this meadow is the only site in the archipelago which harbors multiple species of seagrass, in particular the longer-bladed Cymodocea serrulata which hasn’t been sighted anywhere else in the area,” said Kalisiak, adding that unregulated development could devastate the marine ecosystem, with sewage and sediment suffocating the seagrass.
Acre for acre, seagrass is believed to sequester up to 35 times as much carbon as rainforests and has been recognized as a “blue carbon” tool to combat the climate crisis. However, its efficacy as a carbon sink varies depending on the quality of its environment, and few people, including those at Den Nokor, appear to recognize the ecological significance of seagrass.
Between June and September 2022, Den Nokor created an artificial beach, smothering the coral with an unknown volume of sand and severing connectivity between the coral and seagrass.
Marine fisheries management area jeopardized
“Monitoring research from the [Koh S’dach archipelago] has shown rare and vulnerable species of global importance inhabit the marine seascape in the archipelago as well as areas with the high biodiversity which warrant the highest levels of protection,” Kalisiak said.
At least four rare species of Hippocampus seahorses are found in the sea here, along with the Neptune’s cup sponge (Cliona patera), thought to be extinct for more than a century. The stretch of coast including the Koh S’dach archipelago is known to harbor cetacean species, including the globally endangered Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris).
“The undoing of the proposed MFMA could result in species loss and a decline in ecosystems’ functionality, having dire consequences for the local economy and wellbeing of the people,” Kalisiak said.
Ouk Vibol, who heads up the Fisheries Administration’s conservation department, confirmed he was the officer responsible for implementing the marine fisheries management area, but declined to speak about developments taking place on Koh Toteung or across the Koh S’dach archipelago.
Dith Tina, the newly appointed agriculture minister, who oversees the Fisheries Administration, took to Twitter to declare that marine conservation “will be one among my priorities too.” But when reached for comment, Tina declined to answer questions about the Koh S’dach archipelago and the fate of the MFMA.
Tina instead directed enquiries to the ministry’s spokesperson, Im Rachna, who did not respond.
‘The beauty of the island is gone’
Koh Toteung’s largely untouched jungle is rapidly being gutted, with workers on the island saying they’re aware only that the project is set to become a resort and that they’re being supervised by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). None knew why the RCAF was present on the island or how many soldiers were stationed there.
Historically, Cambodia’s tycoons, known locally as Oknha, have been able to hire RCAF units or even whole battalions to protect their investments. Although this practice is thought to have been outlawed, many of the relations between Oknha and the RCAF remain in place informally.
As such, the RCAF’s presence on the island raises questions about the true owner of the development project taking place on Koh Toteung.
But while the true beneficiaries there remain shrouded, on neighboring Koh S’mach, a 50-year lease on the largest island in the archipelago was awarded to a company that was, until recently, run by Rithy Samnang, who made a $62 million investment on Koh S’mach.
Samnang died aged 41 in May 2022 and is survived by his wife, Phu Cherlin, daughter of Kok An, a senator with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) who was once considered one of the richest men in the country.
Samnang’s death hasn’t stopped work on the project, known as Koh Smach Island Resort Development. The forest that, until late 2019, covered Koh S’mach has been mostly hollowed out, with roads and water supply infrastructure replacing the green canopy. A large artificial bay is also under construction. The sea breeze whips sand across the island from large piles of dredged sea sand being used to construct the bay.
Residents of the archipelago link the ongoing construction to Kok An, a sentiment echoed by a military police officer who said his unit had been stationed on the island by the tycoon.
Koh Smach Island Resort Development shares a registered address in Pipay Tower with at least five of Kok An’s other businesses, including his signature ANCO Brothers group, ANCO Water Supply, and ANCO Specialized Bank. His water utility is already operating in Kiri Sakor district, which includes Koh S’dach commune, where Koh S’mach is located.
A receptionist at Pipay Tower provided reporters with contact details for staff at Koh Smach Island Resort Development. But when contacted, the staff would only confirm that the project is moving ahead without Samnang.
The only remaining director, Su Zhongjian, who is also involved in developing Koh Puos, an island further southeast, could not be reached for comment.
One family, who have inhabited the island for more than 20 years, said they had been brought onto the island “by a powerful tycoon” and were living there as a “land guardian” — a common tactic used by Cambodia’s wealthy to protect against other would-be land grabbers.
“They don’t pay me a salary, but they let me pick the cashews, the mangos, the coconuts, and on top of that, I can go fishing,” said one member of the family. “We worry, we have no land and we don’t know where we will go when the development is finished.
“If we had land off the island, we’d leave,” they added, noting that the island would become another place for the rich when the project is completed. “The development began two years ago, the forest has been cleared and they’re building houses, there are no big trees now — the beauty of the island is gone.”
Similarly, Koh Ampil, another island in the Koh S’dach archipelago, appears to have fallen into the hands of former tourism minister Lay Prohas. Having run the ministry from 2004 to 2007 for the royalist FUNINPEC party, Prohas was unceremoniously removed from his position and replaced with CPP stalwart Thong Khon, who remains Cambodia’s tourism minister to this day.
Despite his fall from political grace, Prohas still received a 99-year lease on the uninhabited Koh Ampil in 2008, although development appears to have stalled. Still, the project’s sluggish progress hasn’t stopped Prohas from requesting a 1-km (0.6-mi) exclusion zone around the island in a bid to prevent others from entering nearby waters.
“The 1-kilometer exclusion zone is too far,” said one local official who requested not to be named for fear of repercussions from their superiors.
Prohas’s request for nobody to come within a kilometer of his island has been largely ignored at times when the former politician is known to be absent. But the local official said Prohas’s request would be unenforceable as Koh Ampil’s shores are less than 1 kilometer from Koh S’dach’s.
“It would mean people couldn’t leave Koh S’dach,” they said.
Competing concerns for the future
The official spoke enthusiastically of the MFMA development as a means to protect fish stocks and support local livelihoods, although they noted that fishers with smaller boats would struggle to reach waters outside of the designated MFMA where they could fish legally.
Here, the official suggested, tourism could help wean the local economy off fishing, but public consultation is still ongoing.
“I hope Koh S’dach can become a model for Cambodia’s development of islands because the local economy has been able to shift from just fishing to fishing and tourism,” the official said.
But when questioned about how the development of Koh Toteung, Koh S’mach and Koh Ampil would affect the implementation of the MFMA, the official said there were many concerns.
“For all of these islands, the question is whether it’s sustainable development or not,” the official said. “Developers should know how to sustainably use an island’s resources and help the local people to develop their livelihoods, but it’s hard to tell if that’s what’s happening because there’s very little transparency.”
According to the official, an environmental impact assessment had been conducted for Koh S’mach’s development, but they were unaware of any studies being done ahead of development on Koh Toteung or Koh Ampil.
Koh Toteung’s development in particular presents concerns for the communities and the potential MFMA, the official added, saying that land management ministry officials simply turned up and began dumping sand onto the coral reef and tearing up the jungle.
“There’s been no public discussion, only a few local officials were told and that information has trickled down,” the official said.
Not everyone on Koh S’dach shares the official’s enthusiasm for the proposed MFMA or the tourism developments that are sweeping the archipelago. In the island’s fishing village, a sense of resentment pulsates among the residents, who say they fear they will see few benefits, if any, from the change of pace in their island life.
“I’ve lived here nearly 20 years now, I remember when there were just a handful of families with houses on the island, but we’re seeing more development on the island, a lot more upper- and middle-class people are coming in,” said one woman who also requested anonymity.
Developers have reportedly chased away small fishing vessels from the islands under development, with fishermen telling of warning shots fired from Koh Toteung as fishers approached the island’s shores. Many relied on the island’s corals and seagrass habitats for catching snails, which can sell for up to $8 per kilogram (about $3.60 per pound) and offer many a supplementary income to fishing.
“I could catch up to 40 kilograms [88 lbs] of snails each day going out to those islands, but now the development prevents us from going back,” the woman explained. “We’re not allowed near Koh S’mach or Koh Ampil. We’re not allowed to enter the area where we can collect snails. We can go if they don’t see us, but if they find us, they will chase us away.”
The tourism boom, she said, hasn’t taken off to the point where fishers can abandon their trade. As such, the proposed MFMA — coupled with the high-powered development of neighboring islands — is leaving many in a conundrum.
“It’s difficult for us, but for the rich people, they live here happily while the island’s poorest face a difficult time,” she said. “The tourists who come don’t come to buy from my shop, they only buy from the fancy shops here, so all of my customers are my neighbors, they’re in the same situation as me.”
Others in the fishing village were less pessimistic.
“The MFMA was a response to the form of corruption that cost us a lot of our resources,” said one fisherman who has lived on Koh S’dach for 15 years. “In the prohibited areas, the big boats have been able to come in and use large dragnets that collect everything in the water — small and big sea creatures — and this threatened the livelihoods of smaller fishers. They cannot survive.”
The rapid rise of tourism projects across the archipelago has seen a boost in employment opportunities off the water. The Koh S’dach fisherman, for one, has opened a restaurant to get ahead of what he hopes will be a more vibrant tourism economy in the post-pandemic years. However, he remained skeptical of the transformative potential that development projects on neighboring islands would actually bring to local residents.
“The residents here will only get jobs as security guards, cleaners or waiters, while the fishermen on this island can provide fresh crabs, fresh squid and fish to the hotels and restaurants,” he said. “But at least we don’t need to migrate to Thailand for work now, we can stay here as a family.”
Banner image: Koh Toteung’s coral reefs that fringe its shores were smothered in sand in June. Photo supplied.