Two years ago Tonle Sap lake was designated a biosphere reserve by Unesco, prestigious international recognition for Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater fishery and the main source of protein for millions of Cambodians.
Once the congratulations subsided, though, the country plodded into the lengthy process of deciding how exactly the lake and its natural resources should be preserved and who should be responsible for protecting them.
There is still a long way to go.
For more than a year, several ministries were bogged down in a debate over the amount of activity—namely fishing—that should be allowed in the biosphere’s most sensitive zones, or core areas. Fisheries officials complained that keeping the area off limits could cost the country $500,000 a year in lost fishing revenues.
This week that problem was solved. Ministerial officials agreed that fishing would be allowed in the core areas, which will be reduced in size by more than a third from the original plan.
But now a new round of bickering has started over what ministry will manage the biosphere.
According to the draft royal decree, which must be approved by the Council of Ministers and signed by King Norodom Sihanouk, policy decisions in the core areas of the biosphere will be made by the Ministry of Environment. But several ministries will share responsibilities for management and protection.
Nao Thuork, deputy director of the fisheries department in the Ministry of Agriculture, said he would rather see his agency in charge. “I think when many institutions are allowed to control and manage the area there will be big problems with responsibility.”
If one agency is in charge, he said, everyone will know who to turn to if something goes wrong.
Noeu Bonheur of the Ministry of Environment, and chief of the technical cooperation unit for the Tonle Sap project, said management responsibilities must be shared because the lake incorporates so many different jurisdictions, from agriculture and environment to public works and water resources. “The fishery people like thinking that everything in the water is their affair,” Noeu Bonheur said.
Though progress has been slow—and at times stalled by discord—Cambodia is much closer to establishing a legal framework to protect the Tonle Sap lake, which is threatened by overfishing, wildlife poaching, poor water quality and deforestation.
The lake was named a multiple-use protected area in 1993 by decree of King Sihanouk. In 1997, the lake was nominated as a biosphere reserve under the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Man and Biosphere Reserve Program.
The designation was formally announced in June 1998.
The goals of biospheres, according to Unesco, are the “conservation of landscapes, ecosystems and species diversity; culturally, socially and ecologically sustainable development; and research, monitoring and education.”
Biosphere reserves are comprised of three concentric zones. The innermost zone, or core area, is designed to be managed for conservation only.
The second layer, or buffer zone, allows for economic activity while the outer zone is supposed to be managed for sustainable development.
In the Tonle Sap biosphere, there are three core areas: Prek Toal north of the lake, Moat Khla on the north-central side and Stoeng Sen to the south.
Originally, these core areas were to be comprised of 70,000 hectares. Fishing and development would only be allowed in the buffer and transitional zones.
But this plan drew an outcry from the fisheries department, which said a ban on fishing in the core areas would be too costly to the government.
“Fishing must be allowed to continue in that core zone because it could generate a lot of revenue for the state,” Nao Thuork said.
Under the revised draft decree, fishing lot operators will be allowed to continue fishing in the core areas, but they will be under close scrutiny.
“Now fishing could continue in principle, taking into account sustainable development and the protection of the lake,” said Asier Segurola Ezkurra of Unesco.
The decree also could be reviewed and revised periodically to ensure fishing in the lake is meeting the objectives of the biosphere, he said.
The size of the core areas has also been reduced, from 70,000 hectares to 45,000 hectares, with the possibility that it will be further whittled down.
“We have already worked out many important disagreements,” Noeu Bonheur said.
The last major hurdle seems to be deciding who will have the chief responsibility for managing the biosphere reserve.
Earlier this month, Minister of Environment Mok Mareth put together a working group with officials from the Agriculture, Environment, Public Works and Water Resources ministries and the National Mekong Committee to get the stalled decree moving.
Minister of Agriculture Chhea Song said his agency and the Ministry of Environment are working together to smooth over sticking points in the draft decree.
He cautioned that if Cambodia moves too fast in establishing the biosphere reserve, it will lose out on the economic opportunities of developing areas around the lake. In recent months the government has asked oil companies to explore for gas and oil in the Tonle Sap basin.
“We must be careful about this speedy integration into the biosphere reserve because we can tie ourselves up,” Chhea Song said.
Chhea Song said it could be a year before the decree is sent to the Council of Ministers for approval.
But Noeu Bonheur said finalizing the legal framework will not take that long, citing progress and cooperation on revisions.
Ezkurra said the most important duty of the government is establishing a solid legal and institutional framework for protecting and developing the lake area.
“This, of course, is a long process,” he said. “There are a lot of different interests involved.