The EU has called on the government to kill plans for a controversial border checkpoint in the Mondulkiri Protected Forest that has drawn the ire of conservationists since it was first mooted two years ago.
At a meeting with Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Tuesday, EU Ambassador George Edgar said the forest, which has seen significant EU funding in support of local communities and conservation groups, was an “important area in terms of biodiversity”.
“The recommendation from the EU was to cancel plans – which we understand are currently suspended – for a road that would go through the core zone of the Mondulkiri Protected Forest,” Edgar said in a statement yesterday.
He added that the proposed checkpoint and accompanying Srea Ampos-Kbal Damrei Road, which would cut directly through the forest, “would have a significant impact on a key protected area”.
Phath Sophanith, a cabinet official at the Interior Ministry, yesterday said Kheng understood the ambassador’s concerns and the need to preserve the forest and its natural resources. However, he added:
“The opening of the border is a necessity that can improve people’s livelihoods in the surrounding area.”
“Samdech [Sar Kheng] said there were two choices,” Sophanith said, describing potential workarounds.
“Don’t open this border crossing because of the impact – but we need to identify clearly what that impact will be – or open the crossing using an existing road that does not impact the protected forest or other natural resources.”
Mondulkiri Provincial Governor Svay Sam Eang, meanwhile, yesterday stood by the original plan for the road and checkpoint, dismissing concerns it would wreak havoc on the forest’s internationally recognised ecosystem.
“It will make it easy for people from both provinces to get their farm goods to market,” Eang said. “This border checkpoint is one Vietnam asked us to open.
“When we build the road, there will be some small problems, but we have studied these things in the past with conservation groups on how to avoid impacting the core area [of the forest],” he continued.
“But we’ve done our homework, when there has to be a border crossing, we must build the road in a way that does not impact the core location.”
But conservationist Marcus Hardtke was adamant that attempts to ameliorate the road’s impact were doomed to fail, saying its very existence would lead to an uncontrollable domino effect.
“The road’s basically the beginning of the end in a protected area. Once you build the road, you have access, migration, land speculation,” Hardtke said. “You have to fight the road, otherwise after that, you have only a defensive battle plan.”
Chhith Sam Ath, country director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), was equally unequivocal.
“We fear the negative impact, it seems too much to lose and very little to gain if the road is built,” Sam Ath said, noting that Mondulkiri already has four border crossings to Vietnam.
A WWF press release condemning plans for the road last January noted that it would cut through 36 kilometres of Mondulkiri Protected Forest, which it described as “a haven for threatened species including [the] giant ibis, the national bird of Cambodia, Asian elephant, leopard, Siamese crocodile, 230 bird species and the world’s largest population of Banteng, an endangered species of wild cattle”.
“This will not benefit local villages and is completely without merit,” Sam Ath said at the time.
“Our position remains the same; we urge the cancellation of the road,” he said yesterday.