Efforts to preserve a section of forest in Preah Vihear province have yielded joint management plans and other evidence of cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia.
Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society
A map of wildlife conservation areas in the northern plain.
Preah Vihear Province
JUST 27 kilometres east of Preah Vihear temple - where an outbreak of violence earlier this month led to the deaths of three Thai soldiers - sits one of Cambodia's most important conservation areas, which in recent years has also been the site of remarkable cross-border cooperation with Thailand, officials say.
The effort to preserve the Preah Vihear Protected Forest Area, located in the Emerald Triangle region near Thailand and Laos, has been aided by Thai-Cambodian joint management plans and the sharing of information between the two countries.
The project coordinating these efforts, the Emerald Triangle Protected Forest Complex project, was established by the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) in 2001 in partnership with Thailand. Cambodia began an informal in 2003 and signed on officially in 2008.
Officials said they expect Laos, which participated in a recent meeting, to join officially in 2010.
James Gasana, who represents donors funding the project, said its potential benefits were not limited to the conservation of the forest itself, as it could also facilitate improved diplomatic relations as well as opportunities for the countries to identify mutual interests.
He said he was encouraged by the success of the project so far.
"People are very doubtful about these types of experiments, but now we have proof that it works," he said.
"Peace agreements need to be signed not as a result of international pressure but because countries realise they have something in common."
What's at stake
The forest is what is known to scientists as a deciduous dipterocarp forest, the type that once stretched across Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. It was at one point home to the largest number of large mammals and water birds outside of Africa, according to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) literature.
Designated a protected area in 2002, the forest is home to about 50 threatened species, including large mammals such as the gaur, banteng, sun bear, leopard, Asian elephant and pileated gibbon. The array of rare birds on offer includes the giant ibis, white-shouldered ibis, white-winged duck and sarus crane, making the forest a destination for bird watchers.
"A lot of the animals are actually stunning," said Dr Hugo Rainey, technical adviser to the WCS.
Thailand and Vietnam have little or none of this type of forest left, the result of human settlement and its attendant destructive practices, including land clearing, hunting and logging. What areas do remain are largely on the border with Cambodia, meaning there could be many opportunities for this type of cross-border cooperation, Rainey said.
Information sharing allows authorities to clamp down on poaching, as poachers find it more difficult to evade authorities.
Trans-border cooperation is long-term, it's technically forever.
Representatives from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the ITTO and donor countries, including Japan and the United States, met in Siem Reap earlier this month to discuss progress made thus far as well as future plans for the project.
Gasana, who attended the meeting, said it allowed for a productive discussion of the countries' various activities at the border.
This success aside, the Emerald Triangle Protected Forest Complex Project has encountered some obstacles related to the ongoing border conflict with Thailand.
For instance, attempts to coordinate joint border patrols have been stymied by tensions and the fact that the borders are heavily mined.
Moreover, a proposed ranger station to be built near a Cambodian military base currently under construction has not been built. There has also been a reluctance to encourage officials from Cambodia, Thailand and Laos to discuss the project and commit to providing long-term support for it.
Securing Laos's official participation has been a challenge. The country has shown only tentative interest so far, but it recently suggested that it would be willing to devote a section of land to the project that would extend its size by 1,200 square kilometres. This would aid its national effort to extend forest coverage to 70 percent by 2020, a goal intended to increase rainfall and enhance its ability to export hydroelectricity, say officials from the country's Department of Forestry.
Sengrath Phirasack, deputy head of planning for the department, said officials had recognised the benefit of joining the ITTO and would soon urge the government to do so.
The forestry department has also sent 20 rangers to Thailand for training, evidence of the informal cooperation with Laos that is already under way.
Rainey said the benefits of bringing Laos into the ITTO fold would be substantial.
"Overall, the larger the protected area, the larger the effective ‘buffer' against activities - logging, hunting, land clearance - that could harm wildlife," he said. "A larger protected area will also support larger wildlife populations, and thus they will be more robust and more likely to survive in the event of catastrophes, such as fires and flooding."
Laos' countryside includes habitat similar to Cambodia's, and scientists believe that animals including elephants routinely cross between the two countries. However, officials said few surveys have been done on wildlife populations in Laos.
In addition to Laos' past reluctance to participate, a new threat has emerged in the form of the aforementioned military base currently being constructed. The Cambodian government is also building two new roads in the area.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has called for the settlement of border areas in the interest of national security, a view echoed by other officials. The base is to house 3,000 people, a prospect that has conservation advocates concerned.
Hunter Weiler, technical adviser to Cambodia's Forestry Administration, said the construction of roads and settlements tends to lead to environmental degradation, though he said he hoped conservation officials would be able to work with military officials to mitigate the negative effects of such projects.
Speaking more generally about the ITTO project, Weiler said its success would depend on the long-term commitment of participating countries.
"Trans-border cooperation is long-term, it's technically forever," he said. "What we want to end up with is a permanent joint management agreement."