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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hope soars for treasures of Cardamom

Hope soars for treasures of Cardamom

L OGGING companies will lose their rights to log a pristine wilderness zone in the

heart of the Cardamom Mountain Range if a new recommendation by the Ministry of Agriculture

(MOA) and Ministry of Environment (MOE) to protect the region becomes law.

The recommendation was contained in a report titled "Conservation State of the

Cardamom Mountains in Southwestern Cambodia: Preliminary Studies" which was

released on Sep 21.

The report, produced by the MOE and MOA in conjunction with Fauna and Flora International

(FFI), the Cat Action Treasury (CAT) and the German rain forest organization ARA,

recommends that 336,575 hectares of forest in the central Cardamom Range in Koh Kong

and Pursat provinces be declared a "conservation forest" between the already

existing Phnom Samkos and Phnom Aural wildlife sanctuaries.

"Together, the proposed Central Cardamom Mountains Conservation Forest, Phnom

Samkos and Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuaries form the largest block of intact and

protected tropical evergreen forest in Cambodia and Indochina," the report reads.

"The outstanding biodiversity of the Cardamom Mountain Range may qualify the

protected area ... to be designated as a Natural World Heritage Site."

Ken Serey Rotha, Director of the MOE's Conservation Forest and Buffer Zone Management

Unit, says the new conservation forest will be a boon to the wildlife that inhabit

the area.

"This proposed conservation 'corridor' will allow wildlife in the region to

migrate from one end of the mountain range to the other," Rotha told the Post.

Hunter Weiler, Cambodian Liaison for FFI and a co-author of the report with FFI's

Indochina Program Coordinator Frank Momberg, says the proposed conservation forest

is a "biodiversity treasure".

"The wildlife we saw and heard about [in the area] were incredible," Weiler

enthused, recounting the results of hunter surveys as well as aerial and ground reconnaissance

of the area he participated in last April and May.

According to Weiler, eyewitness and anecdotal evidence indicates the proposed conservation

forest is home to Cambodia's highest concentration of tigers as well as elephants,

rhinos and the elusive Khiting Vor.

Weiler cautions that the integrity of the area faces the combined dangers of an influx

of returning refugees, planned construction of new roads and hydroelectric dams as

well as wildlife poaching.

"There are Thai-funded and [Thai-]equipped gangs of poachers packing elephant

guns with telescopic sites targeting endangered species in the area," Weiler

warned. "Elephant and tiger parts are sold directly to Thai merchants on the

other side of the border."

Most serious of all, however, is the threat posed by five logging companies - Samling,

GAT, Silverroad, Superwood and TPP - which have concession areas within the proposed

conservation forest.

The report recommends that the contracts the five companies have signed with the

government "might either be cancelled or concession contracts renegotiated to

exclude actual logging within the conservation forest."

Easier said than done, warns Patrick Alley, Director of the environmental watchdog

organization Global Witness.

"This area is not only under concession, but under concession to some companies

which have an appalling record of illegal activities in Cambodia and worldwide,"

Alley told the Post by email.

"Superwood have already began exploiting Aural [District], [one concessionaire

has] a worldwide reputation for environmental and human rights abuses while [another]

has been illegally logging in Koh Kong for years."

Ty Sokun, Chief of the MOA's Forestry and Wildlife Department, plans to take a carrot

and stick approach in soon-to-be initiated attempts to wrest control of the proposed

conservation forest area from the logging companies.

"We know that if we violate the contracts of logging concessions, we might hurt

[investor] confidence," Sokun explained. "Therefore we hope that the logging

concessions will accept alternate sites [for logging] in return for giving up their

rights to this area," Sokun said.

If the logging companies don't cooperate, however, Sokun is prepared to act unilaterally

to save the integrity of what he describes as "the richest biodiversity in all

of Cambodia".

"The second option is to declare the region a Harvest Exclusion Area,"

Sokun said. "That would strictly delineate and limit the areas in which the

concessions could conduct logging operations."

Alley says an amicable agreement that would save the proposed conservation forest

from the chain saws would be of mutual benefit to both the government and the logging

companies.

"By protecting this area the Cambodian government will achieve international

acclaim for achieving what so many countries have failed to do: curbing the activities

of logging companies in favor of the country's natural and social heritage,"

Alley explained. "If the logging companies support this project then they will

be displaying a vision which could help alter the broad public image of them as extremely

destructive operators who plunder countries natural resources for their own short-term

gain, without regard for the host country's long term future."

Back at the MOA, however, Sokun pleads for more detailed surveys of the area to bolster

his arguments for saving it from the concessions.

"We need more in-depth scientific data about the area supporting our claims

[of the area's importance]," Sokun said. "Then we can negotiate more strongly

with the concessions."

According to Weiler such data is on the way, adding that FFI has both the funding

and the expertise for much more detailed exploration and research in the area scheduled

to commence at the end of the current rainy season.

"We have leading international experts on biodiversity willing to come here

and work free because this is such a unique opportunity to work on something of such

global significance," Weiler said.

"As soon as the dry season stats we'll have boots on the ground and researchers

in the field undertaking field surveys in the area."

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