KOH KONG - Koh Kong's fast growing reputation as a good place to earn a living by
fishing or cutting timber is pushing up the province's population figures.
Islands once semi-deserted are now thronging with new settlers from all provinces
looking for higher return alternatives to rice farming.
Provincial Governer Rong Phlamkesan said pre-Pol Pot the province had around 70,000
people but that figures had "dropped to 10,000 by 1979 because of the executions
and hardships of the period".
"Now the province has 90,000 people and that is increasing every year as families
encourage their relatives to come here, some to grow rice and fish but more to trade
or cut timber," said Phlamkesan.
While provincial authorites are welcoming the new arrivals, environmentalists are
worried that protected mangrove forests in Koh Kong are being stripped to supply
a livelihood for the expanding population.
Environmental Minister Mok Mareth, visiting Koh Kong June 18, said the threat posed
to the mangroves a year ago by intensive shrimp farming was now being overtaken by
a rapidly expanding charcoal export industry.
"Now kilns for charcoal production are the big problem with close to 300 large
kilns operating inside the Pean Krasop wildlife sanctuary area alone," the Minister
said, referring to a protected area stretching out from the provincial town.
"We will shut down this industry," Mareth said, launching a campaign to
start dismantling smaller kiln operations this month and then later to target larger
Mareth admits that with only five environmental protection officers policing the
23,000 hectares water sanctuary and thousands of families relying on the charcoal
trade, corruption is rife and change will be slow.
"By force you can do anything but how can you arrest that many people, they
will need asistance, to switch to industries like fishing and gathering other seafoods,"
Experts estimate 46,000 kgs of mangrove charcoal a fortnight are being exported from
the province most of it to Thailand for domestic use and for export to markets in
Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Koh Kong charcoal is even reportedly reaching Germany and other European countries
where it's being used for barbeque fuel.
The $1.4 million a year industry is based on demand for the high quality charcoal
only produced from mangrove wood.
Bernard Callaghan, program co-ordinator for Wetlands International (WI), one of the
few international NGO's working in Koh Kong, said the charcoal kilns are operating
in a 13,000 hectare forest soon to be listed under an international convention for
wetland protection, RAMSAR.
"Koh Kong's forests are the best remaining mangrove forests in the Gulf of Thailand,"
O'Callaghan said. "They are a vital resting point for migration water birds
on cross global flight paths and are also rich in valuable market resources like
fish, natural shrimp, oysters and crabs," he said.
O'Callaghan called on other NGOs and UN organizations to start rural credit schemes
in the province to assist families to find alternative income.
"I'm surprised with over 200 NGOs in Cambodia none of them are focusing on Koh
Kong province," he said.