Some of Cambodia’s fishing communities and civil society organisations are expressing great concern over the ongoing loss of mangrove forests in coastal areas due to illegal encroachment as well as legal coastal development projects. They called on relevant authorities to intervene on the matter.

The concerns of the community were voiced at a regional conference on land and natural resource governance in the coastal areas of Preah Sihanouk, Kampot, Kep and Koh Kong, held in Phnom Penh in late October with nearly 200 participants.

Cambodian National Research Organisation director Sok Sokhom, who attended the conference, told The Post on November 1 that the loss of the mangrove forests was also a loss of natural resources and biodiversity because mangrove forests were the birthplace of marine biodiversity and it is the frontline defence for protecting the coast from landslides and erosion.

Animals such as squid, crabs and snails originate in the mangrove forests and then move out into the ocean.

“If the mangrove forests are completely destroyed, those sea species will not have any place to breed anymore,” he said.

Sokhom said mangrove forests also have many other benefits such as creating oxygen, carbon sequestration and reducing environmental toxins.

“If we develop and enrich our marine resources and improve fishermen’s livelihoods, the coastal mangrove forest will be sustainable. It can attract both national and international tourists. The coastal area is full of natural mangrove forests and beaches,” he said.

Sen Sin, a community leader in the Trapeang Chamkar Krom protected area of Koh Kong province, said on November 1 that many hectares of mangrove forest in her community were being encroached upon despite community efforts to patrol them.

She said some opportunists moved in and secretly cleared many hectares while authorities were occupied with Covid-19 fight.

“They cleared the mangrove forest during the outbreak of Covid-19 when we didn’t patrol regularly as we normally did. So my committee is worried and I do not know what to do to find these bad people,” she said.

According to the report of the 2021 Regional Conference on Land and Natural Resources Governance, mangrove forests have been lost due to several problematic activities, including the illegal encroachment on mangrove forestland, illegal construction and legal land concessions to coastal development companies.

Deforestation of mangrove forests to use their timber to make furniture, construction or charcoal, the privatisation of fishing communities and the licensing of ecotourism developments on mangrove land are also factors contributing to the loss, it said.

“These activities have had social and environmental impacts, such as the loss of marine habitats and other biodiversity, the loss of ecosystems and marine equilibrium, coastal erosion, the loss of wind barriers – this leads to a greater risk for natural disasters to strike in a way that affects the incomes of the local people,” the report said.

It said 50ha out of a total of 522ha of mangrove forest in the Chroy Svay community protected area – consisting of six villages in Koh Kong province’s Chroy Svay commune – have now been cleared illegally.

This illegal encroachment has affected the governance of the forests and its natural resources and biodiversity, as well as the economies of local communities that normally benefit from these natural resources and ecotourism.

According to Sokhom, the provincial administrations of Kampot, Kep and Koh Kong have accepted the request from the community asking for protection of the mangrove forests. They also pledged to address the issues, especially to preserving natural resources related to mangrove forests in coastal areas.

“Authorities in those three provinces thanked the fishing community for giving them the information. But they said the development project was beyond their jurisdiction, although they will try to facilitate an intervention with those people,” he said.

Kep provincial deputy governor Vao Sokha said on November 2 that in order to protect mangrove forest, the authorities have cooperated with the Fisheries Administration with the focus on building border posts to protect the mangrove forest in risky areas and to deploy patrols in cooperation with the village, commune and district authorities.

“We are ready to put up about 70 guard posts in any at-risk areas,” he said. “But the place has to have a road or stream adjacent to it for access. But for areas that don’t have clear boundaries and are near both private land and state land, we will set up defence posts,” he said.