About 160,000 hectares of the flooded forest surrounding the Tonle Sap lake have been destroyed by commercial rice farming operations in the past five years, including vital fish habitat areas, officials said Tuesday.
Tonle Sap Authority Secretary-General Chan Yuttha said a comparison of aerial photographs from 2005 and 2010 indicated that out of a total of 700,000 hectares of flooded forest, 160,000 hectares–or about 20 percent–had been lost in the six provinces surrounding the Tonle Sap.
Most of the flooded forest destruction occurred in Kompong Thom, Siem Reap and Kompong Chhnang provinces, where businessmen have undertaken large-scale land conversions for commercial rice farming, Mr Yuttha said.
“The forest was burnt down and then the roots were pulled out,” he said. “The large-scale encroachment has occurred since 2005 for farming.”
Nao Thuok, director of Fisheries Administration, said yesterday that scientific studies had shown that a loss of flooded forest meant a decline of fish.
Mr Thuok said the destruction of flooded forest was caused by the expansion of commercial farming, which often occurred with support of local officials.
“Some local authorities connived with businesspeople in clearing flooded forest for farming,” Mr Thuok said, adding that conservation of flooded forest is vital for maintaining the lake’s fisheries.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap coordinator for FACT, an NGO involved in fisheries, said the scale of the damage indicated “an alarming loss” of the lake’s forests.
“The more the flooded forest disappears, the more it affects the lake’s fisheries,” he said. “It affects the habitats of the fisheries and the birds.”
“Only a handful of rich and bad, powerful officials were behind clearing of flooded forests,” said Mr Bunly. “If there is no measure taken the flooded forested forest will disappear.”
Mr Bunly said FACT will hold a workshop with fishermen and stakeholders in Battambang and Kompong Thom provinces on July 16 and 23 to gather its own data on the amount of flooded forest lost in recent years.
Mr Yuttha of the Tonle Sap Authority said that officials, meanwhile, were continuing the scheduled destruction of man-made reservoirs in the Tonle Sap floodplains that irrigate commercial rice farms.
He said work crews had so far demolished 24 reservoirs in several provinces, including three reservoirs last week in Battambang, one in Banteay Meanchey, one in Pursat and four in Siem Reap.
He said that 40 reservoirs in Kompong Chhnang were left intact because they are very small and used by subsistence farmers.
“We will not destroy them,” he said, explaining that they posed no threat to flooded forest.
Cheat Syvutha, director of Kompong Thom provincial water resources department, said officials had begun demarcating a portion of 128,000 hectares that have been designated as a protected zone in Kompong Thom province.
“We began demarcating [it as] zone three to prevent any encroachment,” Mr Syvutha said, adding that officials also plan to bulldoze three more reservoirs in Kompong Svay district soon.