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'Developers' strip trees from Angkor

'Developers' strip trees from Angkor

RECENT land clearing within the Angkor Wat protected zone has started to damage temples

in the area and threatens the future of a number of the monuments, say government

officials.

Chay Samith, the acting director of the Ministry of Environ-ment's department of

nature conservation and protection, said up to 1,000 hectares of land has been cleared

of vegetation, much within the last month - almost 10% of the total land area of

the zone.

"You can now see Angkor Wat from Siem Reap for the first time," Samith

said.

He said the clearfelling was causing erosion, the water table to rise and, more importantly,

had all but destroyed a natural windbreak for the temples.

Environment officials, drawing on maps, and insisting that the problem must be urgently

made public, say the clearfelling is now almost at the walls of Angkor Wat.

They said speculators, roughly tracing road and track routes, were cutting swathes

from Banteay Kdei, to the south of Ta Prohm, to the eastern "Gate of the Dead"

at Angkor Thom, right up to the north gate and up to Preah Khan and beyond.

The tourism department in Siem Reap is also worried about the destruction and is

unhappy about a lack of action by police.

Kim Chay Heng, first deputy director of the tourism department in Siem Reap, said

he had complained to a number of different government departments but nothing had

been done.

"The clearing of the land around Angkor is bad for the environment and bad for

Angkor itself," he said.

Heng promised to cooperate with other departments to ensure the damage was stopped

and if possible repaired.

However, he said there did not seem to be much interest.

Chay Samith said many of the temples had trees and plants embedded in them and they

were in effect holding the temples together.

If these plants experienced a sudden change, like increased exposure to wind, it

is likely they would die, and with them, the temples.

He said it also opened the temples up to the effects of wind and rain erosion and

may cause flooding in the Baray Teuk Thlar - the large man-made reservoir.

Samith also complained about the problems of getting action at a local level.

"Nobody is taking care of it. The authorities don't care," he said.

"Angkor is the story of the Khmers but the government does not care."

Samith said there had been two types of land-clearing.

The first is by local people living near Angkor Thom, who have been trying to extend

their farms.

The second is by land speculators who have now cleared and fenced land from Siem

Reap up to Angkor Wat itself.

The speculators have added a spin-off bonus, being able to sell the felled timber

for cash.

Head of the administration bureau at the Angkor Conservation Office, Keo Saravuth,

said that the locals had been given permission by local authorities to go on to the

land but "they had not respected it."

But Samith said the local people account for about 20% of the land clearance.

He said it had been reasonably easy to persuade them to stop clearing it.

"The local people are easy to deal with. We called a meeting and explained they

can stay there but they cannot extend their farms.

"We told them we would take them to court if they continued."

However, land speculators have been a far more difficult problem to solve.

He said they had ignored their requests to stop clearing and they seemed to have

the protection of local authorities.

Angkor Wat is a national park, the first of its kind in Indochina when it was set

up in 1925.

Since then it has been granted World Heritage status.

Samith said the government actually owned the land and that it should not be sold.

However, at least one anonymous speculator is trying to sell it all the same.

Samith said this developer had employed locals to enter the land, clear it and fence

it.

He said he believed once the job was done the speculator would try selling it to

an investor.

Police in the region claim there is no problem.

A local police colonel said all the trees and vegetation had been cut down years

ago and now the people were simply tidying it up.

Siem Reap governor Toan Chay admitted there had been recent clearing, but he blamed

it on handicapped people whom he allowed to live in the area.

"I put the handicapped people in there but it was a mistake, they cleared some

area - about 2,000 square meters."

He said that as soon as the rainy season starts they would replant the area with

better trees.

He denied that any private developer has been behind any of the clearing and fencing.

Ironically Samith said a hundred hectares of the cleared area had been replanted

with Cheuteal trees in 1985 by the Forestry Department in an effort to grow high

quality trees in the area.

"Angkor depends on the forest - it is very hard to grow but very easy to

cut down," he said.

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