By Stephen Kurczy
RATANAKIRI – The remoteness of Cambodia's northeast once made it an ideal hideout for Vietcong, Khmer Rouge, wildlife poachers and illegal loggers. The same isolation had in recent years drawn adventure travelers to the once jungle-covered province, which is now struggling to strike an equitable balance between eco-tourism and sustainable natural resource extraction.
After decades of civil war and lawlessness, Cambodia is now politically stable and promoting tourism to generate foreign currency earnings. Bordering Laos and Vietnam, Ratanakiri now has the infrastructure - a paved road that stops 96 kilometers from the provincial capital, Banlung - and a range of accommodations to host amateur explorers.
The Lonely Planet guidebook refers to the province as "a colorful hotchpotch of natural beauty and cultural diversity". The Wall Street Journal Asia recently labeled it "one of the last frontiers of Asian adventure travel". Those picture-perfect assessments have drawn bigger and bigger crowds: according to the Tourism Ministry, visitors to Ratanakiri surged from 6,000 in 2002 to over 105,000 in 2008.
However those expecting to find pristine forests teeming with wildlife are increasingly disappointed to find lifeless patches of freshly cut tree stumps. Officials say they are doing everything in their limited powers to protect the areas, but the market forces driving resource extraction are often too powerful to resist.
"Forests everywhere are a frontline between conservation and development. It's not easy to say which way to go," said Chheang Dany, deputy director of the Forestry Administration's Wildlife Protection Office. That frontline is slowly but surely receding in resource-rich Ratanakiri.
En route to the province's picturesque waterfalls, unregulated gem mines pockmark the landscape. Recently the government approved a Spanish company's 100,000-hectare plan to establish a game reserve, drawing ire from conservationists who fear it will lead to over-hunting in the area. Meanwhile the mystical "spirit" forests of minority hill tribes are yielding to the commercial impulse of rubber and cashew nut plantations.
The competition between development and conservation is exemplified inside the province's 3,325-square kilometer Virachey National Park. Conservation International, a US-based group that strives to empower grass roots communities in jungles and deserts to make conservation part of their livelihoods, has called the park "potentially one of Cambodia's most biologically diverse protected areas".
Yet many of those tasked with protecting the park, including police and rangers, are known to supplement their meager official salaries through collusion with loggers and poachers. Asia Times Online recently took a three-hour boat ride up the SeSan and Ta Bok rivers, followed by a seven-hour trek along the leech-infested Ho Chi Minh Trail inside the park.
There, a freshly cut tree blocked the path. So Sokoeun, a guide and part-time park ranger, speculated that military police likely cut the log to sell on the black market. "The military police don't make enough money, so they need to do illegal activities," So Sokoeun said, adding that each two-meter-long section of the log could sell for several thousand dollars.
His assessment of police abuse of power is supported broadly by documentary evidence. According to a 2007 report compiled by British environmental watchdog Global Witness, "The police are frequently implicated in forest crime and border police units played a lead role in the massive illegal logging of the Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri in 2003-2004."
The report cited an infamous illegal logging case that involved a former park ranger, Yerb Sat, whom police allegedly got drunk on rice wine and forced to sign papers allowing logging in his section of the park. "Police threatened to kill him if he didn't sign," his wife said during an interview at her stilted home on the southern edge of the park.
Yerb Sat was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison as part of a bust that implicated the province's former governor and military chief, who both fled Cambodia to escape arrest. Because much of Virachey's timber and animals are sold to Vietnamese buyers, illegal activity focuses in the park's so-called Dragon's Tail - where Cambodia comes to a point between Laos and Vietnam.
During a three-month patrol of the Dragon's Tail during early 2008, So Sokoeun arrested eight groups of poachers and loggers, he said. Kham Phon, another guide who accompanied Asia Times Online through Virachey, is a former trader of illegal timber and live animals taken from the park. He said in the 1990s he would stack cages filled with sun bears and monitor lizards on the back of his motorbike and drive clandestinely by night to meet buyers along the Vietnamese border.
Police caught him once, he said, but he paid a bribe and drove on. A decade ago, a live sun bear sold for US$200; now, as the animals become more rare, the same creature fetches $1,500 on the black market, he said. "Many of the animals now are gone," said Kham Phon, who gave up his illegal trade in 1998 to become a park ranger.
The price of illegal timber has also skyrocketed, quadrupling in the past year to between $4,000 and $8,000 per cubic meter, said Pen Bonnar, the provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc. To deter illegal logging and trapping inside Virachey, from 2000 to early 2009 the World Bank provided about $2.8 million for additional rangers, training and environmental studies.
In an October 2008 report, the bank stated the program "probably contributed to poverty alleviation by providing community grants and creating local employment opportunities in the [park]. On the other hand, it probably reduced income generation from lucrative illegal activities such as hunting, fishing, logging and unregulated collection of non-timber forest products."
However the bank ended its support for Virachey in March, partly in response to the Cambodian government's controversial decision in 2007 to grant a mineral exploration license to Australia-based Indochine Resources that covered 60% of the 3,325-square-kilometer park. Indochine's geologists have since sent numerous helicopter expeditions to take rock and soil samples.
Virachey park director Chou Sophark said in an interview that he hasn't enough resources for dedicating a ranger to monitoring Indochine Resources' activities. Without World Bank funding, the park had to reduce its number of rangers from 70 to 55 and cut monthly salaries from $70 to around $30. The cuts, environmentalists note, coincide with rising prices for animals and timber on the black market, raising the incentive for illegal poaching and logging.
Even if the World Bank continued its financial support for Virachey, Adhoc's Pen Bonnar said illegal logging and trapping would continue "because all the local authorities - the police, courts, provincial authorities - are part of the problem".
With the tourism industry suffering from the global economic downturn, it will likely be even harder for locals to see the long-term benefits of conservation over the short-term profitability of natural resource extraction.
International arrivals to Cambodia fell 2.2% year-on-year in the first four months of 2009 and Ratanakiri-based guides and guesthouse owners say arrivals have slumped. Pierre-Yves Clais, owner of Terres Rouges, an upscale lodge in Banlung, said he has nearly lost hope that Ratanakiri can be saved from resource extraction-led development.
Clais said he watched as the long road to Banlung - once hidden beneath a canopy of old growth trees - was transformed by illegal logging into open fields. Independent estimates show that Cambodia lost 29% of its primary tropical forest in the five-year period spanning 2000 to 2005.
"Whenever I see a nice piece of forest, I know it's doomed," said the former French soldier, who first came to Cambodia with the United Nations-backed peacekeeping authority in 1992. Clais said that he loved Cambodia's pristine forests and native cultures so much that he decided to stay.
"It was so nice back then. But I don't have the same feeling about it because of the destruction of the local environment and local cultures, primarily by the Cambodian people," said Clais. "Every day they destroy it more."
Chheang Dany, the official at the government's Wildlife Protection Office, said if conservation and development are to find equilibrium, provincial authorities must respect the law, locals must protect the environment and businesses must invest in tourism.
"Virachey National Park, bigger than Singapore, only generates 10 to 20 tourists a day. How can we generate the revenue for the rangers to guard the park?" he said. "We want to preserve the natural resources and promote the sustainable use for the economy. It's not easy to find a solution, to do it equally."
"I'd love to say it's not too late," said Clais, "but who's going to enforce that policy? If there is going to be hope for Ratanakiri, who is going to bring it? Superman?"
Stephen Kurczy is an Asia Times Online contributor based in Cambodia. He may be reached at email@example.com.