A man jumps between the many arms of a tamarind tree in Phnom Penh, attaches a rope to a sickly-looking branch and slices it off with a chainsaw as he balances in the sky.
This sort of surgery is performed regularly by a team of some 30 city employees, and their work isn’t done, city officials said in recent interviews. More branches, and some whole trees, still need cutting, they said.
“We cut trees every year at the beginning of the rainy season, but we are cutting more this year, because we have more old trees,” said Mann Chhoeun, deputy governor of Phnom Penh. “Cutting the trees will not just maintain the environment, it will reduce the risk of collapsing tree branches and the occasional injury.”
So far this year, around five people have been hurt by falling trees or branches, according to Sam Samuth, deputy director of the city’s department of public works and transportation. That includes an incident late last week near the National Museum during an afternoon rainstorm, he added. Four people driving down a side street on motorbikes narrowly missed being hit by the trunk of a tamarind as it toppled. They were slightly injured by the branches.
“It’s dangerous in a city environment, a lot of dead wood,” said Aernout Theunissen, a rural development adviser in Battambang province with German development agency DED and a former tree-care specialist. “It can drop on people and cars.”
Dead or dying branches can be removed to allow re-growth, while a dead tree should just be cut down, he said.
“If [the trees] are almost dead already, they should cut them and replace them,” he said.
Officials said they plan to do just that, although they aren’t sure how many trees will be cut down this year, or how many will be planted.
“The municipality has no plans to destroy the trees, in contrast, we will plant more where we see we have space,” said Mr Chhoeun.
Trees have many benefits for a city, like reducing the “urban heat effect,” Sarunya Lormaneenopparat, a landscape designer and part-time lecturer on the faculty of architecture at Norton University, wrote by e-mail. The city should try to keep old trees when it can, she said.
“Big trees are more valuable and charming,” she wrote, adding that on many roads in Phnom Penh, a tree on the street becomes a landmark.
Outside Wat Langka on Sunday, stumps and dirt sat in place of some six large flamboyant trees the city cut down because, Mr Samuth said, they were old and unstable, leaving them susceptible to rain and strong winds.
In keeping with the city’s promises, some eight or nine trees will be planted this week in their place, he added.
Tamarind trees, which dot the riverside and the area around the National Museum, are some of the oldest trees in Phnom Penh, according to Mr Theunissen, who said he visits the capital frequently.
Officials, who have said the trees are more than 100 years old, claim this is why they are weak, but Mr Theunissen said there may be other reasons.
“I have seen some work on sidewalks where they cut off roots,” he said. The city should ensure employees and contractors know “how to deal with roots and trees. They cannot cut them off and damage them.”