As the Kingdom moves into the heart of the dry season, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries has issued a set of guidelines on the prevention of forest fires, stressing that jail is in the cards for those starting blazes.
The notice, issued to various government ministries on January 21 and obtained by the Post yesterday, says that while the time of year brings with it naturally occurring fires, those caused by human activity “are the most worrying issue”.
Punishment for setting fires in forests carries a three- to five-year prison sentence, and in the case of mangrove forests, five to 10 years, according to the document.
However, Forestry Management Office director Dr Kao Dana, said that despite having the laws on the books, arresting offenders has proved difficult in practice.
“We cannot arrest; when we arrive there, the people run away,” he said.
Based in Phnom Penh, Dana coordinates with the various provincial Forestry Administration (FA) offices to investigate fires and illegal logging. However, he says, the resources to crack down are lacking.
“Look at the experience in Japan … The government flies over the area and then you see the person burning,” he said, pointing out the wealthier country’s resources, adding that – airplanes aside – there are not enough firefighters and equipment is expensive.
While Dana could not speak to whether fires observed raging in Stung Treng, Koh Kong, Mondulkiri, Ratanakkiri and Kratie were due to logging activities, deforestation compounds the issue.
“[Loggers] first cut it down. After six months, the trees are dead; after that it can burn easily. The forest in Cambodia is not easy to burn unless you cut the old trees first,” he said, referring to how a tropical forest dries out once the canopy trees are felled.
Speaking by phone yesterday, Mondulkiri’s provincial governor, Svay Sam Eang, said there were a lot of “small” forest fires throughout his province.
Asked how the provincial government worked with the local FA to solve the problem, Sam Eang said “we have a plan” but did not go into detail.
Travel guide author Matt Jacobson, who has lived in the country since 1997 and travelled through Mondulkiri and Kratie just last week, said yesterday that he had not seen smoke from fires so bad “in years”.
The worst, he said, is in the Cardamon Mountains of Koh Kong, where he said visibility has dropped to the point where he can no longer see the Gulf of Thailand from coastal hills.
“It’s the worst in the country down here.”