T here may yet be time to save the ecologically vital mangrove forests of Koh
Kong - but if nothing is done soon, the future looks bleak. Institute of Khmer
Habitat project worker John Riley reports.
If you want to know
what might happen to the mangrove forests of Koh Kong - "the rain forests of the
ocean" - it's not too difficult to find out. Just take a trip across the border
into Thailand, or to hundreds of other sites in that country, or to the coast of
Taiwan, or China, or Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam, perhaps further afield to India,
Ecuador, Mexico, Panama. In short, to almost any country where mangroves grow.
Stand in an area that was once shaded by the interlocking
canopies of the forest, that was once fish and crabs, and now resembles "a
scarred battlefield: abandoned ponds, dead trees and contaminated land and
water." This could be the face of investment in the coastal resources of
Cambodia, where-if you replace the word "investment" with the word "plunder"-you
have an idea of the possible future of this rich and unspoiled
Koh Kong, as it is today, has perhaps the finest mangrove
forests still standing in South-East Asia. But the forest is in danger of being
used out of existence, Shrimp farming, charcoal production, the exotic (and
illegal) Klim Chan perfume, unregulated logging and over-fishing all cast their
shadow over this beautiful region.
For shrimp farmers [please read big
business entrepreneurs], Koh Kong represents the chance to make a fast buck.
Intensive shrimp farming is a new thing in Cambodia, unknown before 1985. But
it's effects are well known elsewhere.
According a Ministry of
Environment report: "When mangrove forests are converted to intensive shrimps
farming, the potential.... is lost.... to single purpose objectives that provide
only short term gains. The people become marginalized from the goods and
services that mangroves provide for them."
The culprit is the Tiger
prawn. In Thailand alone the market topped over 30 billion baht ($800 million)
in 1991. And mangrove forests make ideal locations for rearing the prawns. The
soft, level ground close to the sea is perfect for shallow ponds that hold the
prawns. Just a small initial investment - say $40,000 - to clear the trees and
dig the ponds, buy the chemical feed and prawn larvae, and to pay for the
necessary expertise, and within a year the investment is doubled.
real price? This method of farming can in no way be called sustainable. It
depends on hatchery-bred larvae maintained in artificial ponds using chemical
feeds and fertilizers.
To clean the ponds-of the chemicals, the acid
sulfates they activate in the soil, and of the toxic prawn excrement - fresh
water is pumped in and polluted water pumped out. This process causes massive
damage to the surrounding environment and there is no known way to prevent it.
And after between one and three years the ponds themselves become too polluted
to sustain life, and are abandoned. The only legacies are the stagnant ponds
filled with brackish water, the dead tree stumps, and a lingering sulfuric
The "farmers" simply relocate and begin the whole process
In Cambodia most these businessmen are Thai who enter into joint
ventures with Khmers to gain operating licenses. They supply the expertise,
farming methods, and equipment. They supply the shrimps larvae from the
hatcheries. They supply the chemical feeds and fertilizers bought from Thai
chemical companies. Finally, they supply the market for the product, with over
90% exported to Thailand. Khmer provide the unskilled labor.
So far 840
hectares (2.7%) of the forest in Koh Kong has been exploited for this purpose,
with another 400 hectares proposed for development, something the Koh Kong
authorities have so far resisted.
But the authorities have little power
in the face of the rising tide of economic activity in the area.
Klim Chan for example, a sweet smelling perfume that fetches exorbitant prices
abroad. It is extracted from special Klim Chan kilns that burn mangrove wood and
its export is absolutely illegal. Nevertheless there are at least 35 kilns that
are kept burning night and day to obtain the perfume. Ten meters of forest wood
is used in each kiln per day.
The cutting of mangroves for charcoal
production is also a problem in the area, accounting for up to 100,000 tonnes of
cut wood in 1992 alone, and the igloo-like kilns are dotted about the
Although the use of charcoal dates back many years it is only
recently, with the opening up of export markets, that the magnitude of the
destruction has become serious.
There are perhaps as many as 1,000 of
these kilns now operating in Koh Kong, a five fold increase in less than two
years. Again the market is mainly in Thailand (94 percent), but the operators
are usually Khmers, often small scale.
Despite measures to restrict
production - 200 kilns were destroyed in 1993 - the kilns are still growing in
number, fueled by the disappearing mangroves and by the people's need to make
And perhaps there, with the people, lies part of the answer.
According to the director of the Institute of Khmer Habitat, an organization
working on the mangroves in Koh Kong, the solution must begin with them: "It is
no good saying to the people 'You must not do this', rather, you must give them
some alternative, or they will starve. We want to offer them other ways to make
their living, such as growing commercial seaweed, that does not destroy the
forest. And we need to educate them, raise their awareness of the issues
involved, make them into the conservationists we need. It is vital that we act
now to prevent an ecological tragedy."
A Ministry of Environment
spokesman said: "The implementation of any environmental protection measures
will face huge problems if village livelihoods are not taken into account and if
alternatives are not encouraged."
Mangroves forests can be regenerated; groups in Thailand (YADFON) and Vietnam
have proved this. But it is a lengthy and not always successful process. And far
better to take preventative measures now than restorative ones in five or ten
But the obstacles are large:
- Lack of resources compared to incoming investors.
- Lack of knowledge about the extent of the forests, and about the extent of
- Lack of power on the authorities part to enforce what legislation there is.
The Environment Ministry, which has begun to address the problem, stresses
the need for a management scheme that covers all of Cambodia's coastal
livelihoods, from big businessman down to small kiln owner. Unfortunately, the
age old problem of underfunding rears its ugly head.
Of course the
forests are worth preserving just for their diversity. Mangroves are at the
heart of an incredibly complex ecosystem, far from fully understood. They
support seas and land birds, monkeys, fish, countless species of insects and
other invertebrates, crab, shrimp, human.... The list is endless.
naive not to take into account this complexity, of its overlap with countless
other systems, of the potential for disaster in destroying such a
Not only is this destruction morally bankrupt, it is
As testimony, witness the rural poor of Trat in
Thailand attempting to eke out an existence where once they lived in
Today there is little standing between the pristine forests of
Koh Kong and the progress that will turn them into a moonscape.
It would be a tragedy.