Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Gov’t Wants to Exclude Phnom Tamao Deforested Area from Fencing Efforts

A barbed wire fence surrounds the Phnom Tamao Botanical Garden, which remains largely devoid of trees on June 27, 2023. (Andrew Califf/CamboJA)
A barbed wire fence surrounds the Phnom Tamao Botanical Garden, which remains largely devoid of trees on June 27, 2023. (Andrew Califf/CamboJA)

Wildlife Alliance and the Forestry Administration are at odds over efforts to fence the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary in Takeo province, with government officials wanting to exclude the deforested section of the area that is now a botanical park.

The northeastern section of Phnom Tamao was deforested last year and slated for real estate development, with close to 1,500 hectares destroyed in five days of forest clearing. Prime Minister Hun Sen had to intervene after a social media maelstrom of hashtags urging for the forest to be protected. 

A royal decree signed on August 19 created the Phnom Tamao Protected Wildlife Sanctuary and Botanical Garden, protecting an area of around 2,000 hectares. Reforestation attempts were then led by the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit, with the deforested section being turned into an arboretum or botanical garden.

Nick Marx, Wildlife Alliance’s director of wildlife rescue and care, said this week the organization was installing a three-meter-tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire at Phnom Tamao, with construction beginning on the southwestern edge of the protected area and moving north.

Marx said the organization planned to install fencing around the entire wildlife sanctuary and garden but have been met with resistance from the Forestry Administration, who have asked for the deforested section to be excluded.

“We feel it is important to fence the entire area, and we initially do not want to separate the cleared area from the standing forest,” said Marx. 

Marx added that Wildlife Alliance was also unclear about the exact boundaries of the area because UTM coordinates, which are used to demarcate land, had yet to be published. But, they still wanted the fencing to cover the entire sanctuary and garden.

He was hopeful the Forestry Administration would be reasonable in determining where to build the fence. If the department insists on excluding the garden, he hoped they would include the Wat Amor Antong within the protected area fencing.

Just prior to the deforestation, documents emerged showing that part of the Phnom Tamao area was slated to be developed by a firm owned by local tycoon Khun Sea. Then-Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon also told VOD that parcels of land had been sold to another tycoon, Leng Navatra.

Kem Preun, a monk at Wat Thmor Antong, said he was concerned whether the monastery would be given a land title or documentation to formalize its land tenure status.

“This pagoda is around five hectares but I don’t know what is going to happen next. I hope the authorities will give us titles,” said Preun.

Wat Thmor Antong monk Kem Preun worries about the monastery’s future without a land title formalizing its presence in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary, June 27, 2023. (Andrew Califf/CamboJA)

The deforestation last July and August stopped just short of the monastery. Monks at the pagoda said last year they saw wildlife escaping the land clearing, with Preun adding that he now rarely sees wildlife in the area.

Keo Omaliss, the director of the Forestry Administration, said because Phnom Tamao belongs to the government it was up to officials to decide where to build the fence, and not a decision that Wildlife Alliance can make.

“Tell them it belongs to the state. Wherever we build [the fence] it will work, it has nothing to do with that organization,” said Omaliss, directing his comments at Wildlife Alliance.

CamboJA reporters visited the Phnom Tamao area this week and saw vast tracts of deforested land still devoid of trees. A few young trees were interspersed in the plains-like garden, with a few people seen cutting grass in the garden.