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SEPTEMBER 11, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 10

Peter Charlesworth/Corbis/SABA for TIME
Cambodia's remote Cardamom Mountains is the largest, most pristine wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia
The Mountains That Time Forgot
A mysterious former guerrilla stronghold in Cambodia yields dozens of rare animal species
By KAY JOHNSON The Cardamoms

'There Was Method to My Madness': Why TIME Asia ventured into Cambodia's remote wilderness

Stepping into the jungle of the central Cardamom Mountains is like looking at nature under a huge microscope. A solid wall of green comes into focus slowly, revealing a teeming riot of life. Everything seems oversized. Blue-winged butterflies as big as birds flit by. Wild orchids and giant, moss-covered rocks surround the dozens of waterfalls that dot the area. High above, a thick roof of greenery covers a lost world that seems untouched by time and human progress.

That's not far from the truth. Cambodia's million-hectare Cardamoms have been shrouded in mist and mystery for more than three decades, cut off from the world by Khmer Rouge guerrillas who used the jungle as a refuge. While their war against the government ravaged the rest of the nation, the mountains lay untouched: the region is now the largest, most pristine wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia. Earlier this year scientists finally began to probe the secrets of the Cardamoms, with stunning results. Dozens of globally threatened species—including tigers, elephants and a rare crocodile thought to be extinct in the wild—were discovered flourishing in isolation. Survey biologists believe several new species are yet to be discovered.

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But researchers aren't alone in taking advantage of the area's new accessibility. In recent months logging companies and would-be settlers have also moved in. The government has already granted five timber concessions that extend into the Cardamoms. At least two logging roads now lead into the central mountains, and with the roads have come thousands of settlers, slashing and burning trees to clear land for farming. Impoverished Cambodians say they need the land, and the government is desperate for the logging revenue. Ecologists say they have watched similar scenarios before—in Borneo, Thailand and Vietnam—where virgin forests have been mostly wiped out, causing soil erosion, flooding and loss of wildlife. In a report due out next month, London-based watchdog Fauna and Flora International warns that Cambodia must take steps to safeguard the region now. "If we wait another five years," says Frank Momberg, the group's regional program manager, "we will basically lose Indochina's crown jewel."

Named after the spice that still grows on its slopes, the Cardamoms served as a hunting ground for French colonial officials, who marveled at its rich wildlife. Early writings tell of rhinoceroses and black leopards, which scientists hope may still survive in the mountain range. Today virtually every square centimeter of the area is choked with some kind of life, whether moss or vine, insect or reptile. Walking anywhere except on the narrow hunters' paths is slow going, as Cambodian wildlife officer Chheang Dany knows all too well. Chheang spent three weeks picking his way through the dense vegetation, battling malaria and leeches, as part of a biodiversity survey earlier this year. "We would go 5 or 6 km a day and then hang our hammocks and sleep in the jungle," Chheang recalls. Turning, he glances up at a tree and quickly points out five species of wild orchid, all within 5 m of each other.

During that earlier survey, researchers identified an astounding 76 threatened plant and animal species in the Cardamoms, and they believe there are more to be found. Among the discoveries was a population of rare Siamese crocodiles, thought to be extinct in the wild, living in one of the mountains' five major rivers. There are elephants and tigers, as well as less-glamorous but biologically important insects and reptiles. The forthcoming Fauna and Flora report says that in just 12 days, researchers recorded 292 species of moth—more than in well-known "biodiversity hotspots" like peninsular Malaysia.

With such promising numbers, it's easy to see why conservationists are clamoring for the Cardamoms to be protected. But biodiversity means little to the estimated 13% of Cambodians who have no land to farm. In recent months about 5,000 settlers, most of them returning refugees, have taken to the north slopes of the Cardamoms and staked a claim to whatever unoccupied land they could find. Others are moving into the isolated central mountain jungle. Mao Doeun, 46, has spent the last three months clearing a hectare of land in the area for farming. A 20-year army veteran, he has built a two-room wooden shack for himself and his family of eight, and planted rice, bananas, jackfruit and vegetables. "I know the forest is important, but I am very poor," he says. "I can't go to the city to work. I only know how to fight and how to farm."

The roads that logging companies are building in the Cardamoms have cleared the way for even more settlers—and illegal loggers—to move in. Activists insist that for this reason alone, the government should declare the entire region a wildlife sanctuary, or at least force timber companies to destroy their roads after they have finished work in their concessions. The companies, for their part, insist such fears are overblown. According to Henry Kong, president of the Cambodian Timber Industry Association, loggers typically target only three or four high-quality trees per hectare, fell them and leave the rest of the forest intact. "We can jointly manage the Cardamoms for economic benefit as well as for conservation," Kong says, citing examples in North America of managed logging that preserved habitats for spotted owls.

Trusting the logging companies to deliver on their promises isn't wise, cautions Cambodia's official logging-industry monitor, Global Witness, a London advocacy group. In May, Global Witness surveyors took aerial photos of an illegal logging road in the Cardamoms built by the country's leading timber company, Kuala Lumpur-based Grand Atlantic Timber International. The photos were taken 30 days after Cambodia's forestry director, Ty Sokhon, had ordered the company to halt construction. Grand Atlantic said it was building the road to carry out a concession survey ordered by the government, but it kept the hundreds of trees felled. When the case came to a provincial court in July, the company was found guilty but let off easily. The court ordered it to pay only the legal royalty rate for the 777 trees it felled building the road and allowed it to keep the logs for export.

In the past year, Cambodia has made some strides toward protecting its forests, sending in troops to shut down illegal logging operations and forcing legitimate timber companies to present sustainable management plans. But it remains unclear whether the government has the will to cancel contracts in the powerful industry, which generates $11 million a year in royalties for the cash-strapped government, plus large amounts of the uncounted "unofficial" fees so common in Cambodia.

The one group that could force the government's hand is the foreign community, which provides an estimated $400 million in aid to Cambodia each year. After donors expressed concern about the Cardamoms in May, Phnom Penh promised to cancel logging concessions in the region. Nothing has happened yet: the government now says it's waiting for the Fauna and Flora study before taking action. But whether officials will follow the report's recommendations—including discouraging settlers, canceling logging concessions and establishing Cambodia's first-ever forest enforcement system—remains to be seen. Some officials suggest that donors should first pledge money for the proposed wildlife reserve, since the government has few dollars to spare.

Authorities might do well to consider the practical reasons for protecting the region. In neighboring Thailand, overlogging and settlement not only stripped virgin jungle away, but also caused soil erosion that led to disastrous floods in the 1980s. Conservationists warn that Cambodia's lowland farming areas could suffer the same fate if overlogging in mountain areas persists. In the end, Cambodia may have more to lose in the Cardamoms than its glorious wildlife.

'There Was Method to My Madness': Why TIME Asia ventured into Cambodia's remote wilderness

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