Tonle Sap Caught in Profit-or-Protection Gov’t Battle

A proposed decree to protect the Tonle Sap lake area under Unesco biosphere reserve guidelines has run into a classic conservation-versus-development battle among government ministries.

The proposed royal decree stalled at a Council of Ministers meeting in late July after at least two ministers argued a law would be too economically restrictive. They and others say the government would lose at least $500,000 in fishing revenue annually, as well as opportunities to develop dams and perhaps oil and gas fields. In addition, the livelihoods of up to 2 million Cambodians could be affected, they maintain.

“In terms of the environmental protection, we should not walk too fast before we have taken it into very serious account,” Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor said last week. “Otherwise, we tie up ourselves so we cannot develop anything at all.”

But environmental and Unesco officials call the arguments short-sighted. They say that regulation is needed to help conserve fishing stocks and unusual wildlife, and to develop alternate sources of income such as ecotourism. Over the long term, Cambodia’s coffers will benefit, they say.

“Putting the lake into better management will help improve our economy,” said Environment Minister Mok Mareth. “We will lose nothing….We could lose in the short term, but we will gain more in the long term.”

The disagreement provides a glimpse into the inter-ministerial rivalries that exist on almost all money-making issues.

At stake is an area that represents one of the world’s largest sources of freshwater fish and the major protein source for millions of Cambodians. Yet the Tonle Sap and its surrounding area already suffer from overfishing, waterfowl poaching, poor water quality and deforestation.

Under the decree, which must be approved by the Council of Minister then forwarded to King Norodom Sihanouk for his signature, about 70,000 hectares—a fraction of the designated biosphere reserve—would be considered off-limits to development. In addition, dams and other development would be tightly regulated in so-called buffer and transition zones roughly bordered by Battambang, Siem Reap, Pursat and Kompong Thom towns.

sents one of the world’s largest sources of freshwater fish and the major protein source for millions of Cambodians. Yet the Tonle Sap and its surrounding area already suffer from overfishing, waterfowl poaching, poor water quality and deforestation.

Under the decree, which must be approved by the Council of Ministers then forwarded to King Norodom Sihanouk for his signature, about 70,000 hectares—a fraction of the designated bio­sphere reserve—would be considered off-limits to development. Also, dams and other development would be tightly regulated in so-called buffer and transition zones roughly bordered by Battambang, Siem Reap, Pursat and Kompong Thom towns.

Unesco formally designated the Tonle Sap as a biosphere reserve in June 1998, although the decision had been made months before. The designation included three core areas: Prek Toal on the north end of the lake, Moat Khla on the north-central side and Stoeng Sen on the south end.

The core area, which is be­lieved to contain Southeast Asia’s only colony of spot-billed pelicans and numerous other rare waterfowl, is designed to be managed for conservation only.

A buffer zone allows economic activities such as commercial fishing as long as they don’t affect the core area. A third zone, the so-called transition zone, is supposed to be managed for sustainable development.

At the June 1998 ceremony, the top Unesco official in Cam­bodia at the time stressed that such an honor brought a responsibility, and urged Cambodia to prepare the legal and institutional framework for managing the area. The Unesco designation itself is not legally binding.

It is creation of a draft decree that has now generated so much conflict among the ministries.

Lim Kean Hor of the new Water Resources Ministry said he personally does not support a law regulating the area because “Cambodia’s national interest will be severely affected.”                                     Agriculture Minister Chhea Song said that a ban of economic activities such as commercial fishing would cost the government about $500,000 annually in fisheries revenue. He also said he fears protection could affect about 2 million people living around the Tonle Sap.

Mok Mareth downplayed all the concerns, insisting that a royal decree will help protect the environment and turn the Tonle Sap into an ecotourism attraction unique in the world by attracting more aid money.

Other environmentalists in­cluding Unesco environmentalist Etienne Baijot agreed, saying that if the Tonle Sap is well protected, it will have more fish and economic potential from ecotourism.

and it would enable Cambodia to generate more income for development,” he said. There’s also a possibility the area would attract additional international assistance, he said.

Noeu Bonheur, chief of the technical cooperation unit for the Tonle Sap, said the designation won’t affect millions of Cam­bodians as Lim Kean Hor and Chhea Song fear, but merely lead to better management of the natural resources through educating local people.

Fishing to support livelihoods would be allowed, he said, as well as low-impact tourism.

According to a UN Develop­ment Program survey in 1997, ecotourism in the core zone alone could generate $1 million a year, Bonheur said.

Fisheries expert Touch Seang Tana said regulation will help ensure the lake, river and fish ecology are maintained in a sustainable manner.

“Joining the Unesco-protected biosphere reserve will help maintain the Tonle Sap so it can survive the destruction of flooded forests and excessive fishing. This reserve means we can ensure there are safe habitats for fish and other species,” Touch Seang Tana said.

Yi Kimsan, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s agricultural and environmental adviser, called the disagreements between the ministers “technical” in nature. “We are seeking a middle way to weigh the social, economic and environmental interests,” he said.

Despite the apparent blocking of the decree at the recent Coun­cil of Ministers meeting, Mok Mareth said he is still hopeful it will pass.

He said he wants to find a compromise with Chhea Song and also help him understand more clearly about the importance and benefit to protecting the area in law.

“We have had seven to eight meet­­­­­ings and seminars about the Tonle Sap since 1995, but he still misunderstands,” Mok Mareth said. “We have to make a compromise with one another.”

Chhea Song didn’t completely close the door. “Regarding this issue, we will discuss more about it…but right now I am busy and Mok Mareth also is busy. Please wait and see what we’ll discuss.”

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.