Officials say base could derail forest conservation efforts
An RCAF soldier walks past construction work on a new bridge extending into a protected forest area in Preah Vihear province last week.
Preah vihear province
MILITARY engineers have begun construction of a military base in the Preah Vihear Protected Forest Area located in the Emerald Triangle region near Thailand and Laos, a move that Forestry Administration officials said could potentially compromise their conservation efforts.
Sao Socheat, deputy commander of RCAF Military Region 4, which includes Preah Vihear province, told the Post on Sunday that the location of the base, to be used by RCAF Brigade 9, was "more suitable" than other proposed locations, though he acknowledged that its construction could damage forested areas and wildlife habitats.
Hunter Weiler, technical adviser to the Forestry Administration's Emerald Triangle Protected Forest Complex, a joint conservation project between Cambodia and Thailand, said the base would house 3,000 people, adding that he viewed it as a "significant new challenge" that could prevent the government from meeting its conservation goals.
"On the edge of a totally undisturbed wilderness that we are trying to keep that way, the people who live there will be carving out homes in the surrounding forest, catching, snaring and shooting animals for their own consumption and for trade," he said.
Weiler added: "It's a threat to some of the goals and protection measures, but hopefully those threats can be mitigated ... so [military officials] can achieve their goals and we can achieve ours."
Weiler said he believed construction of the base began in either late 2008 or early 2009. Sao Socheat said he could not specify the start or end dates for the project, nor could he say how much it would cost.
In addition to the base, two military roads are currently being built in the 197,027-hectare area, which received protected status in 2002.
The military roads will link the new base to the existing Mombei military base as well as to Rabonh village.
Weiler said Rabonh village is at the edge of the most important area in the forest, which is home to elephants, wild cattle, gaur and banteng populations, as well as several endangered birds, including the white wing duck, the forest crane and the hornbill.
Wildlife Conservation Society technical adviser Hugo Rainey described the area as "hugely important for many large mammals and many rare birds" such as the giant ibis, adding that "elsewhere their habitats are completely lost".
The giant ibis, like many other species in the Preah Vihear Protected Forest Area, is found nowhere else in the world, he said.
Weiler said officials involved in the Emerald Triangle Protected Forest Complex project were most concerned about the base's potential effect on the core protected area in Preah Vihear - the part of the forest identified as having the highest population densities and preferred habitats of many threatened species.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has previously called for the settlement of border areas in the interest of national security, a view echoed by Sao Socheat in an interview Sunday.
The base would be "useful for the nation and for the people, but national defence is most important", Sao Socheat said, adding that military commanders would instruct their soldiers "not to touch wildlife or cut trees in the forest".
Weiler said he believed deforestation at the border would itself pose a threat to national security.
"I would argue there is a national security threat posed by destruction of these forests on the border areas," he said, describing the threat as "just as real and tangible as a theoretical military threat from Thailand or Laos".
He added that he was confident that the government's national security interests could be reconciled with its conservation goals.
Rainey said remote border areas are often home to a range of species that thrive in areas that are not densely populated.
Weiler said examples of development projects in similar areas indicate that the settlement of previously unpopulated regions can lead to the decimation of local wildlife populations and that deforestation in particular can lead to soil erosion and "massive flooding".
Weiler said the threats of poaching and illegal logging were also of particular concern to the Emerald Triangle Protected Forest Complex, noting that the government had in recent years made progress in clamping down on these practices in Preah Vihear. He said settlement locations should be chosen carefully and be clearly demarcated so they are not allowed to expand.
Tong Yee, chief of the Forestry Administration's Chom Ksan division, said his office was also concerned about the presence of the soldiers.
"We are worried that the military base is being built in the protected area," he said. "We have requested that the military commanders help protect the wildlife here because we are concerned the soldiers might use their guns to shoot wildlife."
Tong Yee added that his office had requested that the residential quarters on the base "don't spread out too far".
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THET SAMBATH