The confiscation of five illegal fishing boats in Ream National Park in Sihanoukville sparked a confrontation Wednesday between park rangers and RCAF soldiers protecting the fishermen, environmental officials say.
Park rangers patrolling the waterways within the 21,000-hectare national park seized the illegal fishing boats and large nets from local fishermen just after midnight Tuesday, Conservation Director Chay Samith said.
On Wednesday, five soldiers armed with assault rifles, grenades and a B-40 rocket surrounded the park ranger’s office to reclaim the boats and equipment, according to environmental officials. The soldiers withdrew without firing, and it was unclear Thursday if the boats and equipment were returned, Chay Samith said.
Sihanoukville-based RCAF commander Che Kha denied his soldiers were involved in the incident. “In fact, it was the fishermen who demanded their boats back,” he said late Wednesday.
If the soldiers were involved, the confrontation illustrates a long-standing problem plaguing efforts to protect Cambodia’s natural resources. Poorly paid soldiers throughout the country have been accused in recent years of protecting illegal fishing and logging activities in return for payment.
Ream, which includes the Prek Toeuk Sap river and estuary, and the two islands of Koh Thmei and Koh Ses, is rich in mangroves, coral reefs and other plant and animal life. Dolphins have been spotted there.
The Ministry of Environment has been getting financial support from the UN Development Program to protect Ream from human destruction and set up a foundation for ecology-minded tourism. But rangers are struggling to protect the park from illegal fishermen, loggers, charcoal producers and land speculators. Standoffs have occurred before.
In the December inauguration of the park headquarters, Environment Minister Mok Mareth pledged that Ream would become a role model for Cambodia’s 23 protected areas.
Mok Mareth said Thursday that he now is asking Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng to intervene. “We don’t want confrontation, but we must be serious about action,” Mok Mareth said in reference to the latest confrontation.
UNDP’s funding is scheduled to expire in June, and the organization has warned that further aid will hinge on the government’s ability to show it is serious about protecting the park.
“As long as we’re convinced the government means business, we will try to find resources [to help you],” Paul Matthews, UNDP’s country representative said at the December inauguration. Matthews could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Chay Samith said the fishermen were using illegal equipment including seines—large, vertically-hanging nets.
“Using illegal fishing equipment, most notably the seine, endangers the dolphins’ habitat, marine vegetation and the coral reef,” he said.
Chay Samith said one of the RCAF soldiers who surrounded the park ranger’s office threatened to set off a grenade to force the rangers to hand over the boats and equipment. The park’s staff in Sihanoukville couldn’t be reached Thursday afternoon to confirm details of the confrontation.
In December, environmental officials noted that park rangers would need help from local authorities to stop large illegal fishing boats. Some boats have been seized in the past, Chay Samith said, and some fishermen have agreed not to use illegal equipment, but later they breached those agreements, he said.
In January 1998, environmental officials charged that a large portion of the island forests had been illegally cut by armed loggers. Chunks of land also reportedly have been sold to speculators.
Park rangers have been successful in recent months getting rid of a number of charcoal kilns.
By royal decree in 1993, 23 parcels of land were designated as protected areas, 18 percent of Cambodia’s land mass.
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