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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Loggers compete with eco-experts in Cardamoms

Loggers compete with eco-experts in Cardamoms

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,"

he said.

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

the Department.

"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

continued unabated.

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

decisions.

"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

Site.

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