Cambodia needs to create new laws and enforce existing ones to protect the resource-rich Tonle Sap lake in light of a new Unesco designation, government officials were told Wednesday.
At a ceremony formally designating the Tonle Sap as a biosphere reserve, Bruno Lefevre, Unesco’s representative to Cambodia, said that such an honor also brings a responsibility.
Lefevre said Cambodia now needs to prepare a “legal and institutional framework” and a separate board for managing the Tonle Sap area, which recently has been hurt by overfishing, waterbird poaching and questions about water quality.
He was surprised to learn after the ceremony that the lake also is being considered for its oil and gas potential. He said that if the government were to approve drilling in the reserve, that could pose “big problems” in the view of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The ceremony at the Council of Ministers building was attended by dignitaries including Sok An, co-minister of the office, and Minister of Environment Mok Mareth. The Tonle Sap reserve, which extends well beyond the lake’s shores, is one of 351 such reserves worldwide designated by Unesco. The new designation for the lake area was granted late last year.
Overall, the mood was upbeat. Lefevre prefaced his call for action by calling the Tonle Sap the “heart and breath of the economy, culture and society of Cambodia.”
Speeches by Sok An and Mok Mareth similarly praised the area’s significance and articulated a commitment to make the hard decisions necessary to protect the area so that Cambodians can derive the benefits from the Unesco distinction, which is expected to lure aid money to projects involving the lake.
The oil and gas issue illustrates one of the possible conflicts ahead.
A Japanese oil company is completing a survey on the oil and gas potential in the area.
An official at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy recently said that areas of the Tonle Sap lake may be available for bids by oil companies as early as 1999 if the survey results are successful.
When nominating a site for such biosphere reserve designation, as Cambodia did in June 1997, government officials ostensibly became committed to conserving, sustainably developing and supporting the area through the participation of local people.
But unlike a World Heritage site such as Angkor Wat, the area is not protected under a binding or legal agreement.
Rather, only parts of the biosphere called the core areas must be protected. In the Tonle Sap’s case, that includes areas at the north end of the lake, the north-central side and the southern tip.
In the second, or so-called buffer, zone that surrounds the lake, commercial activities are allowed, but only ones that don’t harm the core areas.
The third zone, which stretches well beyond the second zone, is supposed to be managed in a way that can be sustained over the long term.
Sok An pledged to protect Tonle Sap in part by creating a “stable” institutional policy. “We must recognize that good environment will bring a lot of benefits to the society, culture and economy of Cambodian people,” he said.
Sok An added in a press conference that he hoped the biosphere reserve distinction could be a step toward the Tonle Sap becoming designated a World Heritage site like the Angkor temples. Environmentalists say that it is unlikely to happen.
In his speech, Minister of Environment Mok Mareth said that the Tonle Sap lake generates more than 60 percent of the fish consumed in the country, is considered a wetland of regional significance, and contains many rare and endangered waterbirds.
The lake, he noted, also serves as a huge reservoir for the Mekong River, thus helping regulate floodwaters, particularly in the Mekong Delta.
But Mok Mareth openly noted his concerns about the environment, which he said is “under pressure from inappropriate management and overuse.”
As recently as May, environmental officials warned about overfishing. Agriculture Minister Tao Seng Huor said in an interview Wednesday that the government already has moved to confiscate illegal fishing equipment.
Lefevre said that it shouldn’t cost Cambodia that much money to set up the system to protect the reserve. He noted that “millions of dollars” already have been invested by the international community.
The European Commission, for example, has funded a combination research-ecotourism center in Prek Toal village at the northern end of the lake.
Prek Toal contains several important species of birds such as Southeast Asia’s only colony of spot-billed pelicans, and what is believed to be the largest number of oriental darter, painted stork and black-headed ibis in the region.