The Cardamoms: Protected But Not Out of Reach

Central cardamom protected forest – The sleek black beetle was afloat in the shallow pool of a boggy mountain spring, the hind leg of a tree frog tightly gripped by its pincers.

Just down from the ridgeline and cloaked by trees, the scene was hard to make out against the dark rocks surrounding the spring. But with the frog belly up and looking stunned, the insect’s victory was unequivocal. Both creatures lay completely still.

Shelley McMurtie, a New Zealand freshwater ecologist along on the trek, explained that the beetle was likely injecting a digestive fluid into the frog that would slowly break down its internal organs and turn its insides to goo. Once accomplished, she said, the beetle would suck the frog dry.

ure enough, the next morning, a two-dimensional frog skin lay nearly flat against glistening rock.

A few hundred meters down the sandstone escarpment of the Central Cardamom Mountains in southwestern Cambodia, the tangled jungle of spiky vines, twisting roots and trees growing out of other trees has faced a similar drain on its resources.

After decades of logging that was serious, though selective-with loggers mainly interested in luxury hardwoods and fragrant trees like eaglewood, harvested for its resin-the forest remains, but altered and with a significant portion of its lifeblood gone missing.

Still, as one of mainland Southeast Asia’s remaining treasure troves of biodiversity, the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest has also managed to escape decimation thanks in large part to government and NGO conservation efforts.

“It’s disturbed, but not destroyed,” said Wayne McCallum, an advisor for US-based NGO Conservation International whose photographs of the Central Cardamoms are on display at the Two Fish Gallery in Phnom Penh through Dec 20.

The loggers that divvied up the forest during the height of the 1990s timber frenzy left the majority of trees in place, and somewhat ironically, years of war during which the Khmer Rouge sought refuge in the forest kept many others out, helping preserve the ecosystem-still home to some of the world’s most endangered species like the Siamese crocodile and the pileated gibbon.

Forestry officials said logging never entirely penetrated the Central Cardamoms the way it continues to in neighboring areas, such as Phnom Aural. And the larger-scale operations that did exist in the 1990s essentially disappeared after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a logging moratorium in late 2001 and the 402,000-hectare site became a legally protected area the following year.

Still, truck followed ox cart out of the mountains two weeks ago carrying brimming loads of timber or charcoal made from kiln-fired wood as our pickup made its way in over unbelievably pockmarked roads, which sported holes the size of cars. Temporary shelters on the fringes of the forest were littered with freshly hacked tree trunks.

The trek up Phnom Krapeu, or Crocodile Mountain, along an old elephant trade route later utilized by loggers, traced through areas of overgrown bamboo and rattan-both pioneer species that take over quickly when land has been cleared.

McCallum explained that these patches-in addition to scraggly growth elsewhere and the occasional awkward open space-are proof of past logging and other forest disturbances. A few days later, on the way down the opposite side of the mountain, through a similar but lusher landscape, a rusty oil drum thought to have carried fuel for chainsaws provided further evidence of damage done.

Deep in the jungle that same day, our guide Huon Meun sat near a felled hardwood trunk that had been sawn in half and then abandoned. The wood at the tree’s core was incredibly dense and rich red in color.

Huon Meun gestured behind him and to the left. Over there, he said, there was a battle between the Thais and the Cambodians, though he couldn’t be sure exactly when it had taken place.

“Hundreds of years ago,” he said. “There have been too many wars in Cambodia. You can’t study English. You have to run away. War makes you poor,” he added, rolling up a rough kind of tobacco in a green leaf to smoke.

The Cardamoms served as a refuge long before and well after the Khmer Rouge took shelter amidst its maze. The royal family is rumored to have fled to the jungle following the sacking of Angkor, and more recently, refugees from Cambodia’s decades of conflict have returned home or sought new ones here.

Jars containing the bones of people who died hundreds of years ago can be found at many sites throughout the Cardamoms. A wooden ladder against a steep rock ledge just down from the ridgeline of Phnom Krapeu leads to one such jar.
About 60 cm tall, the ceramic container was cracked open at the top, exposing two amazingly intact skulls and a pile of broken bones said to date back to 1438. Local legends pin the remains to the royal family, though scientists are skeptical this is the case.

From nearby Rolerk Kang Cheung village, where the ascent of the Cardamoms starts in earnest and where the royals are rumored to have taken up residence for a time, Huon Meun knows the forest well.

He knows where the shortcuts are and how to bypass a swarm of hornets without disturbing them. He leaves a bit of rice behind at a campsite to appease Neck Ta, spirit of the forest, and rubs tobacco on his feet to keep the leeches from creeping through his porous plastic shoes.

Veiled from view by thick forest, Huon Meun points out a village that was forcibly abandoned by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s where the wooden frame of a “ghost wat” still stands.

In some ways, the kind of intimate knowledge of the forest possessed by people like Huon Meun also poses one of the biggest threats. Local hunters setting snares and using assault rifles are literally eating away at the natural resources in that area, according to Ouk Kimsan, Forestry Administration program manager for the Central Cardamom Protected Forest.

He quickly added that those who know the forest well are also the ones best positioned to save it and the most useful in terms of tangible conservation efforts.

“We use their intimate knowledge to change hunting into conservation,” he said, citing the example of a network of ranger stations established by the Forestry Administration in cooperation with CI.

McCallum said the dynamics of forest threats are also changing as Cambodia becomes a place with a better-trained workforce, and a developed economy benefiting from years of relative stability.

“It used to be death by a thousand cuts, farmers hacking away slowly. Now, it’s large scale investment,” he said, adding that major companies now feel more at ease exploring options in Cambodia.

“Things have calmed down [in Cambodia]. It’s less risky, and it’s ideal for capital to come in,” McCallum said.

Bretton Sciaroni, whose Phnom Penh law firm represents both Oxiana and BHP Billiton, companies currently exploring for minerals in Cambodia, agreed that major international corporations are starting to like what they see in Cambodia.
“Big investment companies don’t like uncertainty…. They like a regulated environment and we’re getting there,” he said. “[Investors] don’t see a perfect picture, but they see progress.”

Larger companies certainly stand to wreak havoc on protected areas-especially after Environment Minister Mok Mareth’s remarks in September that suggested Cambodia’s protected areas are not inviolable. But those same companies are also potentially more aware of their ecological footprint and may be better equipped to clean up after themselves, Sciaroni said.

“[Larger companies] are aware of their obligations internationally. Smaller companies aren’t under as much public scrutiny,” he said.

Ouk Kimsan is concerned about a Chinese company seeking to build a hydropower dam in the Areng River valley, an area that serves as a buffer zone for the Central Cardamoms.

The company has begun conducting a feasibility assessment near Thma Donpov commune, and-if completed-the project will cause flooding throughout more than 10,000 hectares of land and at least two other communes, Pralay and Chumnap, he said.

“I don’t think it’s a good situation. The Areng valley is a very flat area and there will be a huge flood…. If this happens, people will have to be relocated,” he said.
Ouk Kimsan said the company must conduct a careful assessment of its environmental impact.

“We encourage them to conduct the study carefully…. If they see negatives, don’t build,” he said. “The Areng valley is an important zone for biodiversity…. We’ll keep an eye on them,” he added.

Today, the Central Cardamoms descend gradually into the Areng River, where Thma Donpov villagers were fishing, bathing, doing laundry and playing two weeks ago. Several kilometers upstream the river isn’t as wide across, and two water buffaloes forged the river without hesitation toting a family of four.

Back up on the peak of Phnom Krapeu, a pristine and rolling grassland stretches on for kilometers.

The land there hasn’t been touched by anything except the modest beginnings of an ecotourism trek. Hard to access and with clusters of pine trees that wouldn’t sell for much, it is protected and pretty much left alone.

After the scramble of vegetation on the steep ascent, the open fields of soft, gentle grass on the peak are a somewhat unexpected and extremely welcome sight.

Heard from a hammock strung between two pines, the occasional barking deer adds to the constant hum of cicadas. Giant wings slice the air before a great hornbill, looking both regal and prehistoric, comes into view.

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