Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a rare order over the weekend putting an end to the clearance of forest adjacent to the country’s largest zoo, following multiple appeals by environmental groups and members of the public.
The Phnom Tamao forest, located roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Phnom Penh, is home to many rare and endangered species, and is the only forested eco-destination anywhere near the capital. The forest encompasses an area of more than 6,000 acres (2,450 hectares) and is home to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, established in 1995.
In April, media reported that the government had agreed to sell more than 1,200 acres (500 hectares) of the protected forest to real estate company Leng Navatra and two other companies said to be close to Hun Sen’s family. Later reports suggested the entire area had been earmarked by the government for development, excluding the 1,000 acres (400 hectares) that contain the wildlife center.
Despite widespread protests by environmental groups and members of the indigenous communities that rely on Phnom Tamao forest products, Leng Navatra on Aug. 1 commenced clearance of the area and, within a week, had torn up nearly 400 hectares of trees.
On Sunday, Hun Sen posted a message to Facebook announcing that he had decided to end destruction of the forest in response to the “many requests to the government.”
“As I am the highest responsible person of the Royal Government, I ordered the forest to be preserved near Phnom Tamao Zoo, an end to the clearing of forest land, and for the forest to be replanted where it was cleared,” he wrote.
“Thank you, compatriots, for your participation in giving constructive advice.“
Hun Sen’s announcement drew applause from Phuong Sothy, a resident of nearby Kandeung commune, who said people in the area had been caring for the forest “for more than 20 years, when it was only knee-high.”
“It took the company just one week to clear hundreds of hectares of forest,” she told RFA Khmer.
Despite the damage to the forest, Phuong Sothy said she was happy that the government had put an end to the development and plans to replant the trees.
“I’m so happy that I cried when I heard the news,” she said.
NGOs welcome announcement
On Sunday, prior to Hun Sen’s order, NGOs held protests calling for an end to the clearance of Phnom Tamao forest, sources told RFA.
Nine members of the Khmer Thavorak Youth Group knelt in front of excavators at the site, unsuccessfully pleading with operators to stop their work, while 10 members of the Mother Nature environmentalist group rode cyclos from Phnom Penh to the forest, carrying signs calling for a halt to development. Both groups halted their activities after learning of Hun Sen’s declaration.
Khmer Thavorak Youth Group’s Chhoeun Daravy told RFA that the success of the campaign to end deforestation at Phnom Tamao was a result of public participation, and she urged Cambodians to continue to express their opinions to address other problems in society.
“I’m so excited – everybody was jumping with joy when we learned of the decision,” she said, adding that she and her fellow activists “have hope again.”
Hun Sen’s announcement was also welcomed by Nick Marx, the manager of Wildlife Alliance, a New York-based environmental group that seeks to offset climate change through forest preservation.
Marx, who has been working with Phnom Tamao forest and its wildlife center for 20 years, said his organization is prepared to discuss replanting the cleared area with Leng Navatra and has offered the company its assistance.
Prior to the clearance of Phnom Tamao, Marx issued a statement urging the government to refrain from turning the forest “into yet another satellite city near Phnom Penh,” arguing that doing so would “unnecessarily waste a most valuable natural resource.”
Instead, he called on authorities to develop Phnom Tamao “in an eco-friendly fashion,” with lodges, lakes, bird watching shelters, game drives, and a team of trained park rangers and guides.
“This would be a valuable eco-destination for visiting tourists and Cambodian citizens and would also be a legacy for the current Prime Minister and the government, declaring its interest and desire to conserve Cambodia’s natural resources,” he said at the time.
Civil society organizations regularly criticize Cambodia’s government for failing to carry out proper impact assessments before granting land concessions to developers, which they say result in projects that destroy the environment and the livelihoods of area communities.
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