As scientists race to complete the first biodiversity survey of the Cardamom mountains,
the Malaysian-owned GAT logging company is extending a logging road into the central
range - straight into the heart of a proposed conservation forest.
GAT is one of four logging concessionaires with rights to extract timber from an
area of the central Cardamoms that conservationists want to protect, and the only
one to start cutting this year.
The on-going biodiversity survey led by Fauna and Flora International can already
show incontrovertible evidence that the Cardamom mountains are home to many highly
endangered species (see crocodile story, page 1), but logging will continue until
the Government makes a decision to remove this area from concession.
Patrick Alley, from the environmental monitoring group Global Witness (GW), said
Cardamom wildlife habitats will suffer if the logging continues.
"Given concessionaires' past records in Cambodia, and the fact they pay scant
regard to the law, any concession activity in the Cardamoms will almost certainly
ruin the area's biodiversity and deprive Cambodia of an incredibly valuable natural
heritage," said Alley.
"Villagers in Ratanakiri said that until the Vietnamese logging incursions there
in 1997-98 there were tigers in the area. When the loggers came the tigers disappeared.
This is the problem the Cardamoms will face - with roads come illegal logging and
wildlife poachers," he said.
A forestry expert who recently visited the GAT base camp in Koh Kong Province said
that from the air one can see areas in the GAT concession with some remaining tree
cover and other areas that "have been just devastated."
Some 5,000 cubic meters of logs are now stockpiled at the company's wharf, where
the 75 km road into the Cardamoms begins. He said these logs were cut illegally in
1999, and impounded before they could be exported or processed.
The fate of these logs, worth some $1.5 million on the world market, will soon be
decided by the courts.
He estimates that there are some 500 Military Region Five troops guarding the GAT
road and working in the forest for the logging company.
"Five hundred guys can make a big dent in the forest in a year or two. This
is a graphic case of how forestry in Cambodia is characterized by military involvement,"
Conservationists wanting to save the Cardamoms will face serious opposition from
the logging interests, he warned: "If you look at it from the concessionaires'
viewpoint, they have signed a contract with the Government, and have invested in
substantial sawmill infrastructure and a road better than any provincial road in
the country. At the end of the day they have a hungry sawmill to feed."
The forest concessions are managed by the Ministry of Agriculture's Department of
Forestry and Wildlife. Assisting in the biological survey of the Cardamoms is the
Department's Wildlife Protection Office (WPO).
The WPO's Field Survey Coordinator, Chheang Dany, said his department intends to
take the central Cardamoms out of concession if the survey can provide the evidence
that this area will be more beneficial to Cambodia as a 'conservation forest' than
as a logging concession.
"If we want to take back this area, we have to convince the Government that
it should be a conservation forest. But the concessionaires will mobilize legal teams
to stop this, or ask the Government for compensation," said Dany.
Changes to the status of the central Cardamoms are very much in the planning stage,
but Dany said they want to declare the region a 'conservation forest' to maintain
its value as a watershed.
But being declared a 'conservation forest' would not necessarily mean an end to all
logging in the mountains.
Dany said although no formal plans for the area have been made by the Department
of Forestry, current thinking would allow for limited logging closely managed by
"Conservation means we also need to cut some forest - but in a sustainable way.
Trees that are over 30 years old can be cut. Maybe each year we will allow only one
company to remove, let's say, 300 logs from the area.
"If we don't cut, then old trees will just decay and we cannot use them. If
a tree falls down and we can't use it, we lose. It is better to cut with very strict
control," he said.
When asked by the Post to confirm if limited logging was a possibility for the proposed
conservation forest, Ty Sokhun, the Director General of the Department of Forestry,
said only that the future of the central Cardamoms was still in a planning stage.
Sokhun said further penetration of the road into the proposed conservation forest
has now been stopped until the completion of the biodiversity survey, but a source
who was at the end of the road on same day as the interview with Sokhun said construction
Hunter Weiler, FFI's Cambodia liaison, said: "We already know there is a huge
area here crawling with endangered species. We know that well enough to make some
"If you wait until all the studies and reviews are done, it could take five
years ... and in that time 80 per cent of this could be logged out and there will
be a network of roads through the whole area."
He said that every day a decision on a future land use plan is delayed, the [logging]
roads move forward and more trees are cut. Following the roads will be settlers and
hunters who will use them for access to the animals.
To get the central Cardamoms declared a "conservation forest," Weiler said,
the FFI teams want to get the biological justification as quickly as possible so
they can then present a report to the Government.
Also participating in the biodiversity surveys, and watching the situation in the
central Cardamoms with keen interest, is the Ministry of Environment's (MoE) Nature
Conservation and Protection Department headed by Chay Samith.
There are two wildlife sanctuaries in the Cardamoms: Samkos, on the Thai border,
and Aural, at the eastern end of the range. Both were established by royal decree
on November 1, 1993, with full control of these and 21 other protected areas given
to the MoE.
But only in the past year has the security situation in the Cardamoms allowed the
sanctuaries to be more than theoretical.
"In the past the protected areas were just on the map, but from now on the situation
will be different."
This year his department will deploy 325 new rangers to patrol the forests of the
protected areas. They will continue wildlife surveys, as well as be on the lookout
for illegal hunting and logging.
To date, rangers have been working without legal support, said Samith. They only
had declarations from the MoE that didn't carry much weight in the forest. He is
hoping the Council of Ministers will approve a proposed sub-decree which will add
legal muscle to the MoE's enforcement efforts.
If the ongoing surveys can provide the biological justification, Samith hopes the
whole of the Cardamoms - including the central range presently designated as logging
concessions - will be placed under full protection with no logging allowed.
Once the survey reports are completed, Samith said, there will be a forum between
the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, other relevant ministries
and NGOs to develop a conservation plan.
If the central Cardamoms are removed from concession, the region will remain under
the management of the Ministry of Agriculture - unless the royal decree is amended
transferring management responsibilities to the Ministry of Environment, said Samith.
Ultimately, Samith would like to propose the mountains be declared a World Heritage