Legislation to protect the Tonle Sap lake has been passed following two years of often fierce debate, but critics worry the decree adopted last month by the Council of Ministers was so weakened during negotiations that it won’t adequately protect the region’s largest freshwater body.
The decree grants the lake recognition as a Biosphere Reserve, a special status suggested three years ago by the UN Educational Scientific Cultural Organization but held up by wrangling between the Ministry of Environment and other ministries.
Under the new decree, three “core areas,” located at Preak Toal on the northwestern tip of the lake, Boeng Chhmar on the east-central shore, and Stoeng Sen on the southern end, will be off-limits to development such as dams or oil and gas production.
Fishing, which was forbidden in these areas under the original proposal, will now be allowed, though it will be greatly curbed through tighter regulations and increased patrols.
Fishing lots in the core areas will be allowed to continue operating, but the government will inspect the areas every four years to ensure the fishing does not damage the ecosystem.
Debate on the decree greatly reduced the number of hectares that fall under its protection, from the approximately the 70,000 first proposed to the 36,287 now included in the core areas.
Some environment and fisheries officials say that is not enough to control the number of fish caught from the lake, which remains the country’s largest source of food for millions of Cambodians living on or near its shores.
Allowing even limited fishing in the core zones and halving their size could harm fish migration patterns and drive fish into legal waters, making them too easy to catch, said Touch Sean Tana, a Cambodian fisheries scientist.
But Noev Bonheur, chief of the technical cooperation unit for the Tonle Sap, said compromises had to be made or the decree would not have passed.
“Generally, the core zones don’t allow any activity, including fishing, but the adopted royal decree does because of compromises between agriculture and environment ministries,” Noev Bonheur said.
Pro-development supporters, including Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor and Agriculture Minister Chhea Song, claim the decree will harm the economy by chasing away development and costing the government as much as $500,000 a year in lost fishing revenue.
They also point out that investor interest in possible oil and gas reserves near or on the lake could wane in the face of restrictions found in the decree.
However, it is estimated that donor money for conservation and income generated from low-impact eco-tourism could more than make up for the losses.
A UN Development Program survey of the area in 1997 showed that eco-tourism alone could generate $1 million a year, officials said last year.
“Every year, about $400,000 to $500,000 is collected from fishing income in the core zones,” said Nao Thuork, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s fisheries department.
“But this will remain smaller than the foreign aid we will get to conserve our Tonle Sap environment. We will have more fish and economic profits will rise when the conservation is properly managed.”
With the decree, the lake joins 391 other internationally recognized biosphere reserves, including Yellowstone National Park in the US state of Wyoming and the Great Gobi Desert in Mongolia.
“This is a big success we have just achieved,” said Environment Minister Mok Mareth, calling the decree “very important for local communities.”
In addition, the lake will be surround by “transitional” and “buffer zone” areas, which extend nearly to Battambang, Pursat, Siem Reap and Kompong Thom towns.
In the buffer areas, commercial development is only allowed if it does not harm the core area. Development will be allowed in the transitional zones, but it will be tightly controlled, according to the decree.
The core areas contain a diversity of wild-life and rare species to be protected. Preak Toal, for example, is the home of Southeast Asia’s only colony of spot-billed pelicans and has what is believed to be the largest numbers of oriental darter, painted stork and black-headed ibis in the region.
The royal decree will establish a Secretariat for the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserves, an inter-ministerial body that falls under the National Mekong Committee.
The secretariat will be responsible for an action plan for effective conservation and management in all three zones, Noev Bonheur said, adding that conservation required a large amount of cooperation from different ministries.
The specific functions of the secretariat will be decided in a subsequent sub-decree expected this month, Mok Mareth said.
In the meantime, Mok Mareth said he plans to improve management through local fishing communities living on or along the Tonle Sap lake so conservation would not just fall on the government’s shoulders.
The decentralization of fishing lots has already partially begun with orders from the government to turn some fishing areas back over to the communities that use them.
Mok Mareth cited the Ream coastal area as an example where local fishermen—around 300 families—had worked to stop some illegal fishing.
He plans to announce in July the amount of money needed to protect the Tonle Sap Lake, but estimates it will cost tens of millions of dollars for donors like Unesco, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the UN Development Project. Money will be used to train more rangers, and build facilities for rangers and researchers. Some money would go toward helping fishermen find alternate livelihoods, officials said.