When the head of Conservation International announced he had a tentative deal with the government to declare more than 300,000 hectares in the central Cardamom Mountains a protected area, his audience, attending a workshop on the wilderness area Thursday, was stunned.
Many were pleased that the months-long effort to protect the wide expanse of jungle seemed to be moving ahead.
But perhaps none were more surprised than the firms that hold concessions to log the area.
“I was shocked and upset,” said Henry Kong, director of the Cambodian Timber Industry Association, which today will deliver a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen protesting the move.
None of the five companies, which hold contracts of between 25 and 30 years’ duration permitting them to log the entire central Cardamoms, were consulted about the deal, Kong said.
“I thought it was a very great insult that we were invited to discuss issues,” but not warned of Conservation International Director Jake Brunner’s surprise announcement at the end of the daylong conference, Kong said.
The conflict illustrates the immense difficulty of reconciling the interests of the Cardamoms’ many different stakeholders, all of whom argue they have legitimate interests in helping decide the future of the vast and largely untouched wilderness area.
After months of negotiations, the government and conservation groups are finding common ground. The Council of Ministers last week approved a plan to make two existing protected areas in the Cardamoms—Mt Samkos and Mt Aural—National Heritage Sites, a first step to having them declared World Heritage Sites.
Nominees must be proven protected areas, and the government must come up with a plan to preserve them in perpetuity before UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will consider giving them World Heritage status. Because of the uniqueness of the two sites, they stand a good chance of being approved if a satisfactory management plan is developed, experts say.
If the central Cardamoms are also listed as a protected area, conservationists say they too could be listed as part of the World Heritage site, forming one of the largest protected wilderness areas in Southeast Asia.
“Unlike most parts of the world, where you have little islands of protected land, this would be a whole ocean of protected area that would form an entire ecosystem,” Hunter Weiler, of Fauna and Flora International, said Monday.
Scientific evidence for any decision to protect the central mountains will come from results of a wildlife survey of the Cardamoms, conducted earlier this year by FFI and the ministries of Agriculture and Environment.
The survey found evidence of 65 mammal species, including tiger, elephant and guar; more than 200 bird species; the nearly-extinct Siamese crocodile, and several reptile and insect species thought to be new to science.
But there is also ample evidence of people moving into the area. In addition to the logging companies, there are people hacking homesteads out of the jungle and poachers taking animals for the lucrative wildlife trade.
Under the proposal to protect the Cardamoms, Conservation International has agreed to put up $1.5 million for a three-year program to set up infrastructure and help train rangers. It would also set up an off-shore trust fund to pay for the maintenance of the sanctuary in perpetuity.
But those funds are likely to be just a fraction of what will be needed to compensate the concessionaires, Kong said. While he could not estimate what that figure would be, he said if the concessions are canceled, foreign donors will end up paying the money.
Kong said the logging companies had been working on a deal with the government to develop a protected area within the concessions before they were blindsided by Thursday’s announcement. “In fact we were looking at re-writing the management plan under new guidelines so that the interest of conservation would be addressed,” he said. “Obviously this idea has now been put aside.”
But conservation advocates have complained that logging companies are violating existing management plans, and dispute the companies’ claims that they carry out logging in a responsible and sustainable way.
The advocates point to the pending appeal of a case against GAT, one of the concessionaires. An investigation by environmental watchdog Global Witness found the company was logging outside its concession.
A provincial court decision earlier this year ruled that the company could keep the logs but pay a fine for the violation—a fine equal to the government tax the company would have had to pay if the logs had been cut legally. Global Witness described the penalty as a slap on the wrist.
But Kong said opponents use that as-yet-unresolved case to prejudice the public against all five concessionaires.
“The court will decide whoever is culpable of any major forest crime,” he said. “I do not think we should tie this issue” to the question of protecting the area.
Even in the Cardamoms’ two existing protected areas—Mt Aural and Mt Samkos—there is “zero management,” Weiler said. “There are no [effective] rangers. There is no training.”
Neither sanctuary has been adequately demarcated, and increasingly numbers of people are settling on land that is meant to be protected, advocates said.
According to a recent Global Witness report, there is illegal logging on Mt Aural. As many as 20 sawmills are in the protected area, and the processed timber is being sold openly in Odong town in Kompong Speu province.
“Local authorities appear to be implementing the ‘crackdown’ on illegal logging very selectively in and around Aural,” said Jon Buckrell, a Global Witness director.
Meanwhile, the people who run the sawmills, many of whom are former Khmer Rouge fighters, have said they have few options for earning a living other than timber cutting and hunting.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)