Mangrove forests along Cambodia’s coast in Kampot support more than 100,000 families and create a diverse ecosystem that is home to hundreds of unique species.
But coastal development projects, coupled with locals’ reliance on the forest for their livelihoods, threaten to decimate more than 1,000 hectares of this lush environment, an NGO has said.
The mangroves have been in decline for a decade due to human activities, including logging and filling the waterways with sand to create artificial land, according to Wildlife Conservation Cambodia.
Fishing communities say their livelihoods are also being affected by a 1,000-hectare special economic zone under construction in the province.
Besides a $100 million seaport and $400 million Chinese-backed coal power plant being built at the site, a private company, Keo Chea, is building a 200-hectare hotel complex in nearby Kep Thmey village.
“The land has been demarcated for investors. It is state land, but we local citizens cannot use the land. They say it has been allocated for development,” said Nak Sen, who represents fishermen in Kampot town’s Trouey Koh commune.
The commune is also home to a salt farm and land is being divvied up to expand the business, placing the mangroves further at risk, he added.
A dam-like structure built into the sea to shelter the port will only help to seal the fate of the mangroves, according to Mam Kesey, an investigator at rights group Licadho in Kampot province.
“They fill up the coast with sand and build a protecting dam into the sea for more than 20 kilometres, which severely affects the natural resources as well as the coast,” Kesey said.
Shifting climactic patterns being monitored by the local officials are a growing cause for concern, said Sar Sarin, director of Kampot’s Fisheries Administration.
The squeeze on arable land has gone hand-in-hand with increasing coastal erosion and rivers drying up, he added.
But all is not lost, Sarin said, as reforestation programs have made some progress towards restoring the forests. In 1970, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization measured 3,000 hectares of mangrove forest in Kep and Kampot provinces combined.
Local officials say that with the help of foreign donors, only 100 hectares have so far been lost. However, no accurate measurements of the forest have been taken in recent years and more is destroyed every day.
Villagers are now being educated on the value of the forests through a government scheme that aims to involve local communities in conserving the forest.
“These are measures to prevent climate change. We allow communities to join our efforts and protect and reforest,” Sarin said.
But Phou Teng, director of the Wildlife Conservation Cambodia in Kampot province, is less optimistic.
“Everywhere, the mangroves are being destroyed every day; it cannot be prevented,” he said.