Magazine article Geographical

Reconciliation and Conservation in the Cardamoms: Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains Were Once a Refuge to the Khmer Rouge. Now, as Cambodia Begins to Address the Horrors of Its Recent Past and NGOs Struggle to Combat Illegal Logging, a Conservation Initiative Is Turning Former Soldiers into Guardians of This Little-Known Treasure

Magazine article Geographical

Reconciliation and Conservation in the Cardamoms: Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains Were Once a Refuge to the Khmer Rouge. Now, as Cambodia Begins to Address the Horrors of Its Recent Past and NGOs Struggle to Combat Illegal Logging, a Conservation Initiative Is Turning Former Soldiers into Guardians of This Little-Known Treasure

Article excerpt

The ranger station at Pramaoy in southwestern Cambodia has all the trappings of a colonial hunting lodge. A bullet-holed elephant skull looms above a tangle of radio equipment, and several rifles lean against a woven rattan chair. One wall carries a photo of 11 grinning men holding an enormous reticulated python. However, the station isn't manned by gun-toting poachers. Rather, it's the preserve of Fauna and Flora International (FFI), one of several conservation groups working to protect the forests of the Cardamom Mountains from illegal loggers.

The Cardomoms' 44,000 square kilometres of thick jungle represent one of the last forest wilderness areas in mainland Southeast Asia. To the untrained eye, there is little evidence of destructive humanity beyond the small clearings of slash-and-burn farmers and the odd bridge destroyed by a logging truck. The overwhelming feeling for those bold enough to venture into this landscape of dense forests, mighty rivers and cascading waterfalls is one of exhilaration.

The area's diversity, in terms of geology and elevation, is reflected in the variety of its flora and fauna. According to the UNDP, its biodiversity compares with that of the Amazonian rainforest. It's home to more than 600 species of bird and almost 300 of moth, and remarkable densities of large mammals such as wild cattle, sambar and muntjac deer, leopards and wild dogs. Recent surveys have revealed threatened species such as the gaur, pileated gibbon and tiger, as well as the critically endangered Siamese crocodile and several new species, including the Cardamom wolf snake and the Cardamom banded gecko.

Since 1970, Cambodia's forest cover has declined from around 70 per cent to 30 per cent of its total landmass. The Cardamom Mountains were the last region to suffer, but the speed of destruction in recent years has been bewildering. For almost two decades, the area provided an ideal hideout for recalcitrant Khmer Rouge soldiers battling the Cambodian government and Vietnamese forces. Although the rebels exploited the forests to survive, their presence also protected them from widespread destruction. It wasn't until 1998, some 23 years after the fall of Pol Pot's genocidal regime, that the last remnants of resistance finally cracked. With the new peace, attention shifted to working out how best to shield the country's vast natural resources, but the forces of commercialism and corruption quickly out-manoeuvred those of conservation.

No sooner had the soldiers departed than the loggers moved in, well armed and protected by powerful businessmen in Phnom Penh. Luxury hardwood began crossing the Thai border, much of it bound for Europe and North America. Other non-timber commodities have attracted looters: aloe wood oil from the Cardamoms' evergreen forest fetches as much as US$370 (198 [pounds sterling]) for five millilitres, and an extract from the bark of the koki tree is sometimes used in the production of ecstasy tablets.

With the loggers' arrivals, the wildlife began to disappear rapidly. Poachers send tiger bones and elephant tusks to Thailand, primates to the markets of Phnom Penh and the 'medicinal' parts of reptiles, tigers and other cats to China and Vietnam. Ivory is said to fetch more than US$400 a kilogram.

Other NGOs are working in the area, including Conservation International and Wild Aid. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is trying to encourage local people to adopt alternative livelihoods as a way of reducing their impact on the forest. It has persuaded some villagers in the lower Cardamoms to abandon slash-and-burn farming for livelihoods based around non-timber forest products. Families have also been resettled in lower-lying areas for rice planting using micro credit as their starting capital.

Other projects embrace weaving, rice-wine-making and the merchandising of handicrafts and non-hardwood products. Although in their infancy, the schemes are proving popular, says the AFSC's Wayne Macallum. …

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