Environmental officials want a 100-km wide “buffer zone” created in the northeast to help protect the Virachey National Park area from a logging concession operated by one of Cambodia’s most powerful companies.
Conservation Director Chay Samith said the Ministry of Environment plans to request the Council of Ministers establish the zone within a portion of an area under concession to the Chinese-Cambodian logging company, Peaphimex Fuchan.
A buffer zone would mean that commercial logging would be banned, but local people likely would be able to use natural resources to sustain their livelihoods. NGOs are meeting today to discuss the proposed buffer zone, also referred to as a park boundary extension.
The case could be a significant test of the government’s newly articulated commitment to balance conservation and commercial interests and stop the destruction of Cambodia’s forests.
But acknowledged Chay Samith: “It is an uphill task to lobby for an area in the concession to be set aside as a buffer zone.”
Virachey is one of the country’s largest national parks, covering 332,500 hectares in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri provinces, and is considered one of the richest areas in terms of biodiversity.
The Peaphimex concession covers an equally massive amount of land—350,000 hectares in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri.
Environmental officials said the buffer zone is needed not only to help protect the park, but also to secure natural resources for local indigenous people who might otherwise be tempted to plunder the national park.
The buffer zone or park boundary would be extended to the Sesan and Sekong Rivers. If the buffer zone is approved, Peaphimex still would have a sizable concession left over.
“This is a huge opportunity for the government to actually make something good of logging practices,” said Jack Hurd, regional program manager for the World Wide Fund for Nature, which has been working more than a year to set up ranger stations and other programs to help protect Virachey. “There is no buffer zone now—just a line on a map that says ‘park.’ It’s a shame when someone just says, ‘This is a concession,’ without considering any other values involved.”
Efforts to reach Peaphimex for comment were unsuccessful.
The proposal has percolated toward the top of the environmental agenda in recent weeks, amid an increasing concern about the Pheapimex logging contract, granted in January 1998 by the Council of Ministers.
Peaphimex took over a concession previously granted to Macro-Pannin of Malaysia. The transfer was made despite urging by the World Bank for the government to wait until forestry reform was completed before signing any new logging contracts.
The idea of a buffer zone comes out of a study among environmental officials, NGOs and provincial officials, officials said. Forestry Director Ty Sokhun said he was unaware of the proposal, but said it is a good idea.
He suggested, however, such concerns by environmentalists also could be addressed within the concession agreement itself.
Ty Sokhun said the concession is under study by the Ministry of Agriculture and an Asian Development Bank concession-review team. Commercial exploitation won’t be allowed in areas rich in wetlands and wildlife, he said.
“Now we are studying the area and data is being collected,” Ty Sokhun said. “Not all of the 350,000 hectares will be commercially exploited.”
The concession deal with Peaphimex does appear to give the government the right to deny logging permits in environmentally sensitive areas. The contract also has provisions for preventing damage to the environment.
Ty Sokhun said that logging in the concession isn’t scheduled to start until next year.
Environmentalists especially are concerned about the Peaphimex concession because of the company’s previous practices elsewhere in Cambodia.
In a 1997 report, the London-based watchdog Global Witness called Peaphimex the “nastiest timber company in Cambodia.”
Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to Hun Sen, said Thursday that Peaphimex would get no special treatment from the government. regardless of its relationship with the prime minister.
Until recently, the government has been secretive about logging concessions. Despite more openness about the concessions themselves, details such as logging plans and concession boundaries are still difficult to obtain.
Hurd of WWF said another reason a buffer zone is needed is so the Ministry of Environment can better protect the park itself.
“The problem is that the Ministry of Environment has no jurisdiction outside the park, even concerning issues that affect the park,” Hurd said.
He added the original boundaries were drawn up with outdated topographical maps instead of being based on rigorous scientific analysis.
(Additional reporting Kimsan Chantara)