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A fire fighter hoses down smouldering earth after a 2016 fire that devastated the Tonle Sap Biosphere.
A fire fighter hoses down smouldering earth after a 2016 fire that devastated the Tonle Sap Biosphere. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Ministry issues measures meant to counter wildfires

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries on Monday signed off on a list of seven measures intended to guard against forest fires, although details on implementation remained scarce yesterday and observers said they expected little to come of the new document.

The regulations largely appear to reiterate existing measures, such as bans on burning of forested land to drive out animals or to convert land into fields or pastures, as well as on the traditional use of fire in harvesting honey.

Among the new measures is a directive telling authorities to improve response times to fires including mobilising the “community, students [and] monks” to help and another ordering they ensure that burned land is guarded so it may be reforested.

The directives also maintain that authorities “need to take legal action” against violators, though ministry spokesman Lor Reaksmey acknowledged yesterday that “our authorities never arrested anyone”. Forest fire-related offences can carry sentences of three to 10 years.

Last year, nearly a third of the flooded forests in the Unesco-designated Tonle Sap Biosphere were lost to unprecedented fires. Long Kheng, the area director of Prek Toal – a 21,342-hectare “core area” of the conservation zone that lost some 7,000 hectares – said he hardly expected new regulations to change much.

“I see the regulations issued every year and the forest fire also occurs every year,” he said, adding that a lack of resources was a major obstacle to fighting the fires last year. “We had nothing.”

One conservation NGO director, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they hadn’t seen “concrete action on this kind of regulation in the past, or even right now”.

Meanwhile, Conservation International’s regional director for the Greater Mekong, Dr Tracy Farrell, also pointed to a lack of both technical and human resources yesterday.

“We need to start with a lot of the equipment provision . . . training on the ground, using the equipment in a drought context,” she said, pointing to the adverse conditions that drove last year’s record fires.

However, independent researcher Dr Veerachai Tanpipat, who attended ASEAN’s 10-country meeting on forest fires last May, said in an email yesterday that recognition of the problem across the region as a whole appears to still be lacking. “Those participants . . . were not high [ranking] government officers who could make any impact,” he wrote.

Read: Scenes from a drought

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