A LONG-touted southern extension of the border of Virachey National Park is under
twin attack from logging concessions and a lack of political support.
The proposed Virachey Park "buffer zone" extension, extending south of
the present park boundary to encompass additional thousands of hectares of pristine
forest inhabited by indigenous hill tribes and numerous species of endangered wildlife,
was first floated in 1994.
In February of this year, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng Provincial officials representing
provincial Departments of Forestry, Environment and Rural Development gave unanimous
support to the plan and forwarded necessary documents to facilitate the extension
to the Ministry of Environment (MOE) in Phnom Penh.
Four months later, Koy Sokha, Director of Virachey National Park in Ratanakkiri,
was shocked to discover that a large part of the proposed buffer zone had already
been allocated to the logging concessionaire Fuchan-Pheapimex.
"I didn't even know the concession existed until a Forestry official came here
in June and informed me," Sokha explained. "I asked him for the Pheapimex
concession documents, but he only gave me one ... he said [the concession details]
were very secret."
Such news is no surprise to Patrick Alley, Director of the environmental watchdog
NGO Global Witness. "[Pheapimex] is very nasty," Alley told the Post by
email. "It's the worst concessionaire in Cambodia and the best connected."
The circumstances behind Pheapimex's acquisition of a concession within the proposed
Virachey buffer zone are cast into further doubt by Hor Hong, Director of the Department
of the Environment in Ratanakkiri.
"Pheapimex didn't do an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the concession
area, so if we follow the law, no EIA documents means they can't cut," Hong
told the Post. "This is a bad habit of the government ... doing legal 'shortcuts'
[with concessionaires] and forgetting about required EIAs."
News of the concession also came as a shock to Lay Khim, Head of the Protected Areas
Office at the Ministry of Environment, who like Sokha was frustrated in his efforts
to get details of the deal.
"We tried to get a map of the concession and the management plan, but the Forestry
Department refused," he explained.
The proposed Virachey extension has long been advocated by environmentalists as a
logical adjustment of the original park boundaries, created by Royal Decree in 1993.
Dave Ashwell, consultant for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,
played a key role in the formulation of the original boundaries and admits that the
drawing of the park boundary in southern Ratanakkiri was "somewhat arbitrary".
"...About one-quarter of the park's boundary was drawn fairly arbitrarily,"
Ashwell said. "It was a desk job ... based on old French maps and designed to
make sure medium-elevation forest was encapsulated [within the Park boundary]."
That "arbitrary" park boundary, environmentalists warn, makes Virachey
Park susceptible to illegal logging by concessionaires on the park's borders.
"The border of that section of Virachey National Park [in Ratanakkiri and Strung
Treng] is not a physical boundary ... it's difficult to judge from the ground where
exactly the park begins and ends," explained Khim. "The proposed park extension
has natural boundaries such as mountains, rivers and roads that are easy to monitor."
According to Sokha, benefits of the Virachey extension would be far-reaching.
"We believe the buffer zone is important for the many indigenous people living
there who rely on natural resources for their livelihoods," Sokha said, noting
that the buffer zone area supports a population of 11,700 assorted Kavet, Lin, Kachoch,
Brou and Lao tribes people. º
"We also think that the buffer zone area is a good wildlife habitat for endangered
species such as tiger."
Sokha pins his hopes of warding off the depredations of Fuchan-Pheapimex and maintaining
the natural integrity of the buffer zone's ecosystem on the 1993 Royal Decree that
created Virachey National Park.
Article Three of the decree states: "This protected area system may be amended
or extended in the future on the basis of scientific information relating to biological
conservation and the maintenance of the productivity of the Cambodian landscape."
Not enough, according to Khim at the MOE, who says that hopes for a government acceptance
of the proposed park extension hinge on the passage of a sub-decree specifying the
activities that can and can't occur within protected areas.
However, the draft sub-decree was rejected by the Council of Ministers in January,
and although Khim plans to resubmit an amended version in October, he isn't optimistic
about the possible results.
"The Council of Ministers thinks more of economics than conservation ... I'd
say that the [Council of Ministers] isn't sympathetic to conservation at the moment,"
Khim points to the Council of Ministers' recent opposition to planned wildlife preserves
along the Tonle Sap River as evidence of its anti-conservation bias.
"Frankly speaking, we still don't have any good signs regarding the passage
of this sub-decree," Khim said. "I'm not very hopeful, but I'm not saying
we'll give up ... we'll just need to find another way."