The Temple at the Heart of a Dying Forest

By Pierre-Yves Clais

Among all the beauties contained in Ratanakkiri province, there lies a very special one, which is not a lake, nor a waterfall, nor rapids running beneath the shady trees; this beauty was shaped a long time ago by the hand of man, but the forest had been its shield.

Remote, difficult to reach, and forgotten for hundreds of years, Prasat Ta Nang seems different from any other temple you can contemplate in Cambodia. The Jarai villagers living in this part of the province say the temple was built by the Cham, their cousins, who took that route a very long time ago on the occasion of one of their war expeditions against the ancient city of Angkor.

Built with bricks so finely jointed that they seem to be stuck one to another, the little red Ta Nang temple was erected on the banks of a beautiful river used in the past to transport the building equipment and materials to this location through the gigantic forest adjoining the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

Time seems to have been suspended here at this temple. The Cambodian forest vibrates, alive under the heat of the starting rainy season. Giant hornbills fly above the trees. We had to swim in order to cross the river whose red waters swirled in whirlpools all the more due to recent thunderstorms.
We felt lost in a Rudyard Kipling novel.

This wonderful moment, one of those I have experienced in Cambodia so many times over the past 20 years that I have lived here: discovering Jarai totems measuring two meters high into the heart of the forest; arriving for the first time at Preah Vihear temple after riding on a motorbike for several days and climbing the mountain during torrential downpours; or landing in a Russian helicopter in front of Angkor in 1992—that wonderful moment was nevertheless a sad moment.

Everything is changing fast in today’s Cambodia, really too fast!

You can hardly appreciate its beauties that are already condemned by man’s greed!

The animals, which last year were livening up the forest, are now gone: no more small deer, no more deer, actually nothing much left because the modern world is about to swallow this corner of Ratanakkiri and its nature.

The Vietnamese bulldozers, which are destroying Cambodia’s beauties, are only a few kilometers away from here, because the forest has been sold, sold for its timber and its land. The wood goes to Vietnam on an endless convoy of trucks, and land is used to feed the South-American outsiders: the gloomy Hevea brasiliensis, which are about to spread to most of what was the Cambodian forest. Imported to Indochina by my own ancestors after its seeds were stolen from Brazil by Briton Henri Wickam in 1867—in order to plant it all over Malaysia—the hellish armies of Hevea brasiliensis, or rubber, are growing everywhere in Cambodia. Bleak, dismal, oppressing, these plantations have become the focus of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who thinks there are not yet enough of them. From time to time the prime minister redeems himself and declares that it is time to stop cutting the Cambodian forest to make plantations. But it seems his counsellors are constantly pushing some new documents under his eyes, therefore he signs again and again, and with every drop of ink, trees and animals are dying, crushed by the steel of Caterpillar tracks.

Nothing escapes: The natural reserves are declassified and qualified as “degraded forests” by officials who have never been to those reserves and then welcomes land concessions by saying that they will be a buffer zone, a “no man’s land,” which will thus protect what is left of the national park.

This is called globalization. The Chinese need rubber to make tires, and thus the gaur, the banteng, and the Cambodian elephant must die. No need for risky colonial conquests like in the past, a simple transfer of money, and Vietnamese hands will work for German funds to put new tires on the Chinese people’s cars. By the way, did you think that German people are nature and forest lovers? Maybe in their country, but in Cambodia Deutsche Bank and some private investment funds, such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC), are paying for those bulldozers that are devastating the forest; the workers are Vietnamese but some of the Euros are German.

Even good intentions often turn into ecological nightmares. The bridge in Andong Meas over the Sesan river is being used to deforest the entire northern bank of the Sesan river, which has been abandoned to the greed of the bulldozers devastating the Jarai and Kachak territory, which was once a wonderful place which had been for a long time one of the prime locations for ecotourism in Ratanakkiri. This entire zone has thus been taken from its inhabitants, whose future is now confined to working as laborers on plantations that were once the land of their ancestors.

Those who are liable for this industrial deforestation are always people close to the government. Extremely rich, they have the intelligence to know how to “share,” but be assured, it is not out of greatness of soul. They “share” because they are aware of the fact that if they prevented the people at a lower level from taking profit from it too, the latter would backfire on them. So they let it happen. This is how nearly all the population of Ratanakkiri has gone to assault the forests in the province. Wherever you go, you can see motorbikes transporting precious timber, cars, buses, tractors, trucks… everywhere the noise of chainsaws has replaced the singing of birds.

Many people have become rich nowadays in Ratanakkiri. Luxurious cars line up in front of the restaurants of Banlung at the time of the morning breakfast soup. We could rejoice, if only we did not know the reasons why the people are rich, and were not aware that deforestation will only stop, eventually, with the last tree.

Because now is the final assault. There are no brakes, no shame. There are only a few spots of forest, soon-to-be-gone, between Banlung and the Sesan River. However, even this water frontier has also been crossed by the most highly connected forest exploiters. The Virachey National Park and its buffer zone are being attacked from everywhere; the Andong Meas “bridge of mass destruction” and the land concessions in the Dragon’s Tail are swallowing the Virachey Park on its Eastern side. It is also now ensnared because the center and the West side of the park are also under attack.

Despite the fact that the Cambodian ecotourism sector is creative, relentlessly striving to look for the last beautiful spots to offer new tours to travelers, we are invariably overtaken by the chainsaws. Other land concessions have been illegally assigned next to Koh Peak village in the buffer zone of the park. There the forest is so beautiful and scattered with waterfalls. The new safe havens of the ecotourism activities in Ratanakkiri will not last long. Three teams of 30 loggers each are working all day long in the forest of the Kachak people, and trucks are lining up to transport the wood, which will be stored in the vicinity of the Sesan river, before being transported by night to legal timber yards and thus “laundered” as clean wood for dirty money.

The loggers are all Khmer people from Kompong Cham, Takeo, Pursat. The minorities in Ratanakkiri cannot even benefit from the evisceration of their forest, they are only called on to scout out the last expensive trees, like the very scarce Thnong (Pterocarpus Macrocarpus), worth $3,000 per cubic meter in Vietnam.
Even the Virachey National Park is seriously damaged; the visitors we are sending there all come back with the same comment: it is a splendid place, but it is being massacred by deforestation. We might still work there for one more season, and then it will be over for this zone.

The wonderful project of getting acquainted with a family of gibbons acclimated to humans in the western part of the area called the “Voeun Sai Siempang Protected Conservation Area” is entirely jeopardized by deforestation. Loggers are working all around this environmental spot, and sometimes less than 100 meters from it. The foreign scientists living there can no longer observe the animals—one silver langur at least was killed recently. The animals are now hiding and in some cases their environment has already been destroyed.

As for me, the first two groups I took to the Voeun Sai Siempang Protected Conservation Area at the beginning of this tourist season could only see the remains of trees cut all around. They could not see any gibbons. What a great view! No doubt these foreign visitors will encourage their friends to come to Cambodia too, so that they can enjoy the beautiful concerto of chainsaws.
Besides the fauna and flora, this is an entire economic sector, the tourism sector, which is being sacrificed. Many hotels, tour operators, guides, drivers and hundreds of other people will be part of the fallouts of the demise of ecotourism. They all believed, to different degrees, in the government’s promises that ecotourism would be developed; nature and indigenous cultures would be preserved. What is left today of those promises? Such a waste.

Let us imagine a hotel owner or a travel agent in Siem Reap who hears every day that, for years, another temple has been destroyed by a bulldozer. This is similar to what we have to endure regarding the forests of Ratanakkiri—we who love and promote this beautiful region of Cambodia.

And because in Cambodia everything can always get worse, this image of demolished temples is likely to become a tragic reality; Ta Nang temple on that bend in the river, has been closed to tourists for a few days. Guards from the Vietnamese land concession company are forbidding any access to the temple, claiming that the whole area now belongs to them and their land concession of 10,000 hectares. Only a few Cambodian people have been allowed to enter the concession, provided they leave their national identity card as a deposit and as long as they do not bring any cameras! All this leads us to believe that this little red temple has become a nuisance. Nothing must stop the forest from being cut down and turned into rubber plantations, certainly not this unknown temple. An accident involving a bulldozer would be so unfortunate; the driver would be blamed…This is what some fear. It would not be the first time that heritage is razed so that economic development rises instead.

But Cambodia is changing.

Since the July election, the people have started to hold their government accountable, massive deforestation has become very unpopular, let alone the scheduled destruction of an Angkorian-era temple in Ratanakkiri if information were to spread of its threatened survival! If the current government wants to remain in power, it will have to reform itself.

Now that the country has new ministers of agriculture and environment, I wish that they would draft a policy that is different from the one enforced by their predecessors and realize that there are other ministries in their country, such as the Tourism Ministry for instance, and that it would be wise to cooperate with them for the orderly development of tomorrow’s Cambodia. And because I am irredeemably optimistic, I really hope the government will realize that, beyond the Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean land concession companies, the small economic actors of the country can be shown some consideration, and that simply with a signature the heritage of the country can be sold and destroyed.

Let us find some inspiration from what is already functioning: the NGO Wildlife Alliance has successfully demonstrated, in the Koh Kong region, that the protection of the environment coupled with the development of tourism can be an achievement as well as a showcase for the country.

The only thing is that the government must have such a wish, and the prime minister must use his pen not to wipe forests off the map but rather to protect them.

Pierre-Yves Clais is a writer and owner of Lodge des Terres Rouges, Ratanakkiri. Translated by Lucie Moreau

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