The Wildlife Alliance yesterday discovered over 200 hectares of mangrove forests within Koh Kong province’s Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary were illegally cleared.
In a press release obtained yesterday, the wildlife and forest conservation NGO said the discovery of the forestry crime was made following a routine forest canopy disturbance monitoring conducted by the organisation.
“It showed a large-scale, systematic and complete removal of mangrove forest at an industrial scale by heavy machinery. Some locations inside the sanctuary with large-scale mangrove removal are already being filled up with quarry soil, seemingly in preparation for construction,” the statement read.
The Wildlife Alliance said mangroves are vital for Cambodia’s resilience to climate change and serve as a physical barrier along the coast against high storms and sea-level rises, which are now occurring at a much faster pace than was previously seen.
Wildlife Alliance founder and CEO Suwanna Gauntlett said yesterday she called on urgent action to stop the clearing of mangrove forests, noting approximately 227 hectares have been cleared in the sanctuary located at the province’s Khemara Phoumin city.
“We just discovered it yesterday, so we don’t know when it started nor who did it,” she said. “Seeing the large-scale, systematic clearing, it is obvious that expensive heavy machinery was used, thus indicating that the land clearing was not done by poor farmers.”
“It is heartbreaking to see this devastation. The livelihoods of fishermen are at stake, given the vital role of mangroves as nurseries for coastal fish, shrimp and crab. Urgent action is needed to stop this,” Ms Gauntlett said.
“To me, it looks like a land-grabbing case where the forest is cleared for resale of land lots. Based on our long experience in the area, this seems to be a typical case of real estate speculation,” she added.
Mon Phalla, director of the provincial environment department, yesterday denied the Wildlife Alliance’s claim on the massive deforestation, saying: “I don’t believe that hundreds of hectares had been cleared.” He added he has yet to receive a report from the NGO regarding their discovery.
“We would like them to submit a report to us because they are our partner organisation when it comes to cracking down on forestry crimes,” Mr Phalla said. “We don’t know which parts of the sanctuary they [Wildlife Alliance] are claiming to have been cleared – whether it’s the same area that we have found or not.”
However, he acknowledged the presence of a small group who illegally clears mangrove forests in the province.
“Our officers [rangers] have been patrolling daily and saw that some mangrove trees had been cut. We are searching for the persons behind such act,” he said. “We are also working to determine the exact number of felled trees while we work on a report to be filed to the court.”
Koh Kong provincial spokesman Sok Sokty yesterday said the provincial hall has also not received a report regarding the Wildlife Alliance’s discovery.
“We have rangers patrolling the area daily. Relevant authorities have consistently enforced measures to protect the sanctuary and prevent any forestry crimes,” he said.
Neth Pheaktra, spokesman of the Environment Ministry, yesterday warned the public from occupying any land within the Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary as it had already been registered as state land.
He also called on the Wildlife Alliance to cooperate with the provincial environment department in stemming any forestry crime, such as forest encroachment or deforestation, within the protected area.
Last month, the Environment Ministry registered more than 50,000 hectares of protected area in Koh Kong and Mondulkiri provinces as state land in a bid to eliminate land disputes in said areas.
In a statement, they said the Ministry of Land Management issued 18 land titles in two wildlife sanctuaries, with 10 titles covering around 4,000 hectares of Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary and the other eight covering more than 45,000 hectares of Phnom Prich.