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What lies beneath: The fight to save Phnom Kulen

Slash and burn farming has devastated large swaths of Phnom Kulen’s previously lush forest covering
Slash and burn farming has devastated large swaths of Phnom Kulen’s previously lush forest covering. Erika Pineros

What lies beneath: The fight to save Phnom Kulen

Illegal logging and destructive farming practices have archaeologists racing to rescue an ecologically crucial mountain and its hidden temples

Sakada Sakhoeun has taken the mountain path from Siem Reap to Phnom Kulen every week for the past five years.

Driving on the mountain is tough and the 28-year-old archaeologist has done it in the worst conditions: at night, lost, in the rain – when roads turn to rivers and it takes four people to pull his dirt bike from the mud.

But what he’s most worried about is what lies behind the thin curtain of trees that shrouds the main road: fields upon fields of cashew nut trees.

“You can see the line beyond the road – there are no trees, all cashew nut plantations,” says Sakhoeun, slowing his dirt bike to point out the end of the forest cover.

Some 80 per cent of the forest on Phnom Kulen – one of Cambodia’s National Parks – has disappeared due to a combination of illegal logging, destructive farming practices like slash and burn, and a growing trend towards cashew nut cultivation.

Even as recently as 2009, when Sakhoeun started working here with the Archeology and Development Foundation, the forest was fairly lush, he says.

But of the 37,000 hectares of original natural forest, a little more than 8,000 remain.

Eurn Thy
Eurn Thy fears for her livelihood if ADF pushes ahead with plans to change patterns of land cultivation. Poppy McPherson

The organisation believes that a growing population and extensive farming have combined to create an “explosive cocktail” that threatens to ruin the sacred mountain and birthplace of a civilisation.
The Angkorian era began in Phnom Kulen on a vast alluvial plain, the setting for one of history’s great empires. In 802, Jayarvarman II was proclaimed king of the Khmer empire on top of the mountain they called Mahendraparvata.

But Kulen’s place as the centre of political power was brief, lasting only 100 years or so before its inhabitants migrated down to Angkor. The mountain continued to be used as a religious site for another few centuries before the temples were mostly abandoned, though hermits still came to live by the sacred spots.

At some stage, generations ago, villagers began living on top of the ruined city. They cultivated rice and reared animals.

Today, 4,000 people make their homes on the mountain. And more are arriving each year to exploit the possibilities of tourism at the popular waterfall.  

It was against this backdrop that, in 2012, archaeologists conducted an aerial survey using “lidar” (light detection and ranging data) and in the process found that the site was far more important than was thought.

“Basically, the lidar is a technology that sends millions of lasers – it’s like light going through the trees,” explains Jean-Baptiste “JB” Chevance, the French program manager and senior archaeologist at ADF. 

“Some of the lasers hit the ground and bounce back, so you have a 3D model of the ground.”

The results, published in 2013, revealed that the urban network that flourished on the mountain was enormous: Mahendraparvata was home to hundreds of thousands who lived in a city that teemed with life.

Though some temples still stand, much of what remains is less grand.

“Don’t expect to see Angkor Wat,” Chevance warns those who go to the mountain.

The archaeologists use GPS loaded with the lidar data to find potentially important sites – it’s Sakhoeun’s job to drive to points of interest and record what he sees.

Often it’s very little.

A search for part of an Angkorian highway takes them to a nondescript section of the overgrown motorbike trail. “We are right on top of it,” declares Chevance.

So it’s no surprise that villagers have been farming not just close to but in some cases actually on top of temples. That’s a problem for archaeologists. As Chevance puts it: “Burning the temples is not really something you should do, no?”

Archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Chevance
Archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Chevance at an excavation site on the mountain. Erika Pineros

There are some parts of Phnom Kulen that have been made community protection areas under the Ministry of Environment, but encroachment has continued.

In 2011, ADF set up buffer zones around the most important sites to stop farming, and recently began using a grant from the US Embassy’s cultural fund earmarked for heritage facing an imminent threat to pay for cement markers.

“The problem is that now we have a growing population who are cultivating cashew nuts,” he explains.

Most of the land the farmers used for rice cultivation with slash and burn is now covered by cashew trees, and if they want to do rice, they have to move deeper into the forest.

“It’s the perfect explosive cocktail to destroy the whole environment, and they don’t know because they work on their family-scale farm,” says Chevance.

“They know their farm, their neighbour’s farm and that’s it – they don’t have an idea that this is spreading around the whole mountain. I often say the name should be changed to the mountain of cashew nuts, not the mountain of Kulen.”
Unlike other premium nuts, cashews are produced in some of the world’s poorest nations.

They are a low-maintenance crop: the plants need little attention and returns are high. One kilo can fetch around a dollar, and each tree can potentially produce 15 to 20 of them.

And the people who live on Phnom Kulen are among the poorest in the country.

Driving through the vast web of narrow paths that connect the 10 villages on the mountain reveals a landscape of deprivation.

The inhabitants are extremely isolated: it takes hours to walk from place to place and many can’t afford motorbikes. There is little access to healthcare or education.

Many of the cashew nut farmers who work fields in the protected areas live in Kla Khmom village.

Proum Soeum, who is 51, lives in a house made from dried leaves on the edge of the village.

Sakada Sakhoeun has witnessed the escalation of forest clearance
Sakada Sakhoeun has witnessed the escalation of forest clearance. Poppy McPherson

“I have lived here my whole life and my family has been here for generations,” she says.

She’s given birth to 20 children, she says, all but seven of who died in infancy. None of the survivors go to school, as they are all busy with the rice field.

The health of the mountain isn’t her first priority.

“I have never known about the temples because I never got any benefit from that kind of information,” she says.

“The forest is not the same as before, but I don’t care about that because I have to find enough money to feed my children.”

Their father, the family breadwinner, is long dead. He shot himself, Sakhoeun explains later.

The archaeologists are sympathetic to the villagers, who they are encouraging to find alternative sources of income.

ADF has identified the owners of each farm inside their buffer zones and told them that, when the farm finishes, the organisation will help them to set up a mushroom or chicken farm or teach them to fish.

“It’s a bit of a win-win situation,” says Chevance.

But it doesn’t seem that way to some of those living on the mountain.

Eurn Thy and her husband Houn Hean, both in their thirties and living in Phum Themy village, seem confused and frightened by the idea that land that they have always used and burned has been taken away.

“I’m concerned about losing my income … there is less work and I can’t support my family – and what about other people who don’t have jobs aside from farming?” Hean says.

But Chevance and other researchers working on Phnom Kulen believe that change is coming, whether the residents like it or not.

Just as it did in the Angkorian era, Kulen functions today as the source of all the water for the Siem Reap region, feeding the streams that run into the three main rivers.

One of the ancient sacred sites on Phnom Kulen
One of the ancient sacred sites on Phnom Kulen. Poppy McPherson

“If you cut down the forest, there will be a consequence with the water system,” says Chevance.

Benjamin Hayes, a Scottish scientist who has been carrying out biodiversity studies of the mountain, explains it like this: “The forest acts as a kind of natural sponge – it holds water throughout the dry season.

“You’re looking at a mass increase of water usage through tourism and the local population – you’re going to get much more water shortages,” Hayes says.

It’s a strange echo of history: deforestation has been blamed for the episodes of flooding and drought that contributed to the collapse of the Angkorian water management system.

“And it’s happening again,” says Chevance. “People are cutting this whole forest and then they complain because there is no more rain. They might just repeat what was happening 12 centuries ago.”

Some of the villagers have linked the shorter rainy seasons and scarcity of water they have experienced to the destruction of the forest.

Kem Hoeun, 53, lives in the same village as Thy and Hean. 

It seldom rains now, she says, and sometimes the villagers are forced to go elsewhere in search of drinking water.

“When we cleared the forest, we made our lives harder.”
As with most things in Cambodia, Phnom Kulen suffers from sprawling bureaucracy – the Ministry of Environment, the Aspara Authority and the concession holders to the waterfall tourist site all have stakes in the mountain – and a lack of resources.

Apsara, which manages the Angkor temples, has just 10 workers working on Kulen.

“Before, we had 35 workers on this job, but now we have 10 – because of the [poor] job market, they wanted to change to better paid jobs outside the country,” explains Dr Chhean Ratha, the acting director of the department of monuments outside Angkor Park.

Seng Soth, the Ministry of Environment representative for Phnom Kulen, said: “The government cares about that area, and they have created inter-committees from the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Land and authorities to protect the heritage places on Phnom Kulen this year.”

Those committees will consult stakeholders and gather information about the issues facing Kulen.

But action might come too late, Chevance fears.

“The problem is, there is an emergency. And if they spend too much time gathering information, they will end up with a lot of data and nothing left to do with it.”


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