By David Kattenburg
Beyond the bustling town of Koh Kong, off the coast of southern Cambodia, lie 45,000 hectares of mangrove forest – among the most pristine in Southeast Asia. Like others around the world, Cambodia’s mangroves are under threat. Listen here:
Mangroves form a transition zone between land and sea. Like all transitional ecosystems, they are diverse. Mangrove foliage provides rich bird habitat. Fish, crabs and mollusks hide and breed in their dense, aerial root system, which is adapted to salty water. As if these ecosystem services weren’t enough, mangroves stabilize soil, moderate the force of wind and waves, recycle nutrients and sequester carbon.
Ironically, Cambodian mangroves prospered under the Khmer Rouge, which preferred to herd its citizens into the middle of the country. With their downfall, and the emergence of a market economy in the 1990s, powerful entrepreneurs – with military or government links – began clearing the mangroves for shrimp farms and charcoal. Local middlemen joined in, along with inland Cambodians and foreign fishermen attracted to the region’s rich mangroves.
Alarmed by resource decline – and encouraged by international NGOs – the Cambodian government began cracking down. Conservation and poverty reduction could both be promoted, the government reasoned, by empowering local communities. Commune elections were held for the first time in 2002, followed by a community fisheries law. For the first time, mangrove communities began managing their own resources.
With help from the U.N. Development Program and Canada’s International Development Research Center, Cambodia’ Environment Ministry launched the Participatory Management of Coastal Resources Project in 1997. Community workshops were held on mangrove ecology and management. In 2001, the first village management committees were formed within the boundaries of Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary, deep in Koh Kong’s mangroves. Villages outside the sanctuary, around Chrouy Pros Bay, have been invited to participate, in order to reduce fishing conflicts.
Community management has been a success. Villagers have protected local sea grass beds, which are linked to the mangrove ecosystem and add fish spawning habitat. In the mangroves themselves, community patrols do their best to control illegal cutting and fishing practices. Mangroves have been successfully regenerated.
On the down side, government support for enforcement is limited and inconsistent and, outside the confines of community areas, illegal practices continue, such as the use of “light” boats armed with powerful lamps that attract fish. Some fear that commercial dredging of the Koh Kong River – led by powerful Cambodian interests – will damage the mangroves.
As elsewhere in the world, mangrove villagers and their international supporters realize that tourism may be the greatest force for mangrove protection. At least one villager in the area is planning an ecotourism initiative.