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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The killing of the mangrove forests

The killing of the mangrove forests

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.

Or grew.

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

province.

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.

The

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

stench.

The "farmers" simply relocate and begin the whole process

again.

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.

Take

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

province.

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

living.

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

years.

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

    their destruction.

  • 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.

How

naive not to take into account this complexity, of its overlap with countless

other systems, of the potential for disaster in destroying such a

heritage.

Not only is this destruction morally bankrupt, it is

economically foolish.

As testimony, witness the rural poor of Trat in

Thailand attempting to eke out an existence where once they lived in

paradise.

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.

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