In the dry season what is left of the forest is burning every day in Ratanakkiri.
Indeed, burning trees to clear the ground has for hundreds of years been part of
the indigenous culture and this custom was for a long time adapted to the environment.
The villages and the people were few and plots which had been cultivated were left
fallow for long periods; the population was semi-nomadic and the impact on the environment
was almost insignificant.
But the situation has changed for the worse: in the last 20 years the forest has
been commercially exploited; the population has increased from 70,000 to 110,000
owing to a massive immigration of poverty-stricken Cambodians from the southern provinces;
the intensive cultivation of the cashew nut has been introduced; and the thirst for
land is such that indigenous villagers have to burn the forest to assert their rights
to the land thus deforested.
In some places the pace of deforestation has become more and more rapid. Three years
ago the road to the zircon mines of Bei Srok would run through 30 kilometres of superb
jungle. Today the gigantic jungle trees are gone, to be replaced by dull fields of
cashew trees, and what is more, these magnificent trees have not even been used as
timber: due to the moratorium on tree-cutting they have been left burning for months
where they had fallen. No cultural excuse for this waste, the farmers are Khmers
from Takeo or Kampong Cham who, to clear the land they want, burn a forest that is
The government is forever speaking of "ecotourism"; the very word features
high on most political programs, but do they really want to develop "ecotourism"
or have they decided to transform Ratanakkiri into an agricultural zone as well as
an area of settlement?
A few months ago a Cambodian general did advise the Cambodians who had been expelled
from Thailand to look for land in Ratanakkiri because it was good and cheap. The
plans for dams on the river Se San which would submerge the superb forest which is
the territory of the Jarai and the Katcha tribes, the immense plantations initiated
by generals close to the government, the speculation around Banlung - all this would
rather point to "real estate development".
If you take time and travel over long distances you can still find traditional villages
in the middle of a preserved nature, but these places are doomed, just as ecotourism
- which is linked to the existence of such places - is doomed; no "ecotourists"
will ever come to see the villages of accultured minorities living in dust and poverty.
It is high time people in high places realized that properties in Ratanakkiri will
be worth a lot more if the province can keep its forest and its tourism potential;
they would thus prove that development and preservation can go hand in hand. But
alas, the odds are that it is the Malagasy example that will be followed. Indeed
it is easier for the local authorities to let the population saw off the branch on
which everybody is sitting rather than manage their assets for the public good.
If the law which states that the forest is state property is not respected and if
burning trees is not forbidden, Ratanakkiri, "the Precious Stone Mountain"
will soon be a younger sister of Mont Chauve "the Bald Mountain".
Pierre-Yves Clais - Ratannakkiri (The writer is the owner of Terres Rouges
Lodge in Ratanakkiri and the author of Le Petit Futé Cambodge, a travel guide
book on Cambodia.)