The temples and the trees

How the fate of one of humanity’s great treasures is tied to that of a mountain forest

Story and photos by Paul VanDeCarr

As a young boy, Mean Mon and his family would take refuge in the forests of Phnom Kulen, a mountainous plateau in northwest Cambodia. They were trying to escape the murderous agents of the Khmer Rouge on the one hand, and the incursions of Vietnamese soldiers on the other.

Sometimes the forest was the best bet to avoid them all. It wasn’t comfortable, but the hiding was good as the trees were many.

Not anymore. Mr. Mean moved to this particular village on Kulen Mountain 17 years ago. “At the rate we’re going now,” he says, “the forest will be gone in 10 or 20 years.”

Mean Mon and his wife Thun Sophal live on Kulen Mountain with their five children. They grow rice, vegetables, and cashew nuts, and they have a few pigs.

Others put that number even lower. Whether it’s 5 years or 20, park rangers and other officials here agree that it’s a question of when, not if, the forest will be lost, mostly because of illegal logging.

That doesn’t bode well for people on the mountain or for the entire Cambodian economy. The loss of the forests threatens the water supply in nearby Siem Reap and the structural integrity of Angkor Wat — the ancient temples that are one of humanity’s great treasures and the single biggest source of revenue for the nation’s tourism industry.

THE FIGHT TO SAVE THE FOREST

There’s a fight underway to save the forest. One of the foot soldiers in that fight is Chuon Chory, a Phnom Kulen National Park ranger who was born on the mountain and lives here still. “The forest is beautiful and relaxing,” he says. “You can listen to the wind in the trees, and you can walk in their shade.” Kulen is his home, and this job is his mission.

Trees on Kulen Mountain provide ecosystem services, including regulating the flow of rainwater, but at the current rate of loss, the forest may be gone in as little as 5–10 years.

As he and other rangers well know, the forest is not only gorgeous, but life-giving. It is home to wildlife. It turns carbon dioxide into oxygen. It regulates water flow. And all of the headwaters for the Siem Reap River are located in the park.

But the mountain forest can only give so much. Of the original 37,000 hectares of forest here, less than one fifth remains.

“We can’t stop deforestation, we can only slow it down,” says Kim Hee of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is helping the government conserve the forests in this and selected other areas nationwide.

Park rangers May Chamroeun and Chuon Chory were born on the mountain and now are the front line in the fight to stop illegal logging.

They’ve had some success. The government has placed markers around protected areas. They’ve beefed up ranger patrols. They’ve planted new fast-growing trees for fuel. The laws against illegal logging are stiffer now.

Laudable as those measures are, they may not be enough. “There’s such high demand for wood,” says Mr. Kim. The biggest threat is illegal logging, whether it’s people who want to build a house or more powerful interests planning hotels or other large construction projects.

THE LOGGERS

The rangers in Phnom Kulen National Park don’t often catch illegal loggers in the act. Small violators are shooed away. The more egregious violators, when they are caught, may be prosecuted, but even then, the courts make few convictions.

Near the base of Kulen Mountain, large stretches of forest have been cut down for slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging operations.

What’s more, the larger-scale logging operations are crafty. They’ll often hire people from in and around Kulen to do the deed. The locals know the area, and some may even know the rangers, which makes it awkward for the latter to take action; rangers don’t want to get a family friend in trouble.

Some illegal loggers carry weapons, raising the stakes for everyone involved. Rangers are reluctant to risk their lives, especially considering they make only about $125 per month. Meanwhile, one large tree can fetch a price in the tens of thousands of dollars.

THE UPSIDE OF DOWNING TREES

There are some excellent reasons to conserve the forest on Kulen Mountain. But there are also some valid ones to cut it down.

Many people on Kulen Mountain have larger homes or even satellite TV thanks to cashew nut farming and other new sources of income; but such development has a downside, as forests are being cut down and harming the ecological balance in the region.

Mr. Mean and his wife Thun Sophal have been in this village for 17 years. They grow rice and vegetables to feed their five kids. They also farm cashews and keep a few pigs.

“Cashew is worth 5,000 riel (US$1.23) per kilo,” Mr. Mean explains. “That’s seven times what you can get for rice.” And it’s easy to harvest. You plant trees and pick up the nuts when they fall. Mr. Mean sells to intermediaries who in turn sell to other towns and to exporters.

Whether he knows it or not, Mr. Mean’s small cashew nut farm is contributing to the loss of the forest. The practice is so widespread among the roughly 4,000 people who live on Kulen that some worried conservationists have taken to calling the place “Cashew Nut Mountain”.

The sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting more than 2 million visitors a year. Most are unaware that its fate is tied to a mountain 25 miles to the northeast.

TREES FOR TOURISTS

The benefits of deforestation go beyond the income from small-scale cashew farms. In 2016, five million international tourists visited Cambodia, and they spent $3.2 billion. Both those figures are about three times what they were 10 years before. That adds up to Cambodia’s second-largest industry, next to garment manufacturing. And it’s not just tourism. Foreign real estate and business interests are coming to Cambodia like never before.

Tha Hoeurn, 26, and her mother Em Heang, 51, were both born in the same house where they now live. New sources of income on the mountain mean better education, which is important to Ms. Tha, a new mother.

All those hotels, condos, offices and other buildings need floors, walls, tables, beds, bannisters, stairs, you name it. And that means wood, some of it from Kulen.

Thanks to income from cashew nuts, logging and construction, some mountain people now have TV satellite dishes. They also have better roads and a small but growing tourism industry built around a waterfall at the base of the mountain.

More industry has also brought with it easier access to drinking water and better education, which will be important for Tha Hoeurn, who has infant twins. “There’s a teacher from the lowlands who comes every day to teach school, and two other teachers who come from farther away,” says Ms. Tha. She went to school through the fourth grade, began farming at age 16 and has been at it ever since. She’s good at it, too, but wants more options for her children. “Young people today are smarter than they used to be.”

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire in its day, and is the centre of Cambodia’s tourist industry in ours.

REPEATING HISTORY?

There’s a lot to be said for logging. Problem is, if too many trees are cut down, it upsets the ecological balance. And the cost is high.

Trees regulate the flow of rainwater, such as by catching raindrops and slowing their fall to the ground. Fewer trees means more flooding, and that damages the very foundations of Angkor Wat. So, even as deforestation benefits the tourism industry in the near term by yielding trees to build hotels, it also threatens the stability of Angor Wat in the long term. And that chips away at a cornerstone of the Cambodian economy.

Deforestation on Kulen mountain threatens the stability of Angkor Wat and the water supply to the nearby city of Siem Reap. Protected areas of the forest are being marked as part of an effort to slow deforestation.

This is not the first time that deforestation has caused problems around Angkor Wat.

The Khmer empire began in the year 802, on top of Kulen Mountain, or what was then called Mahendraparvata, when Jayarvarman II was proclaimed chakravartin, or universal king. Many thousands of people lived on the mountain. But within a hundred years, inhabitants moved down to the alluvial plains that the mountain overlooks. The population of the new capital, Angkor, swelled to as many as 750,000 people, making it the largest city in the world.

The temples at Angkor were built for the gods, and so they were made of stone — that’s why their ruins remain.

The temples built there were the houses of the gods, and so they were made of stone — that’s why their ruins remain.

The mortals lived in ordinary wooden structures. Much of the wood for homes and fires and other purposes came from Kulen Mountain. Some scientists believe that deforestation contributed to a collapse of the water management system in Angkor, and perhaps to the fall of the Khmer empire itself in the early 1400s.

Nobody wants a repeat of that, but some wonder whether the forest is too far gone for saving.

WHAT’S TO COME

“I regret that people cut down trees, but I can’t stop it,” says Norn Taey, a 30-year-old community chief who was born on Kulen.

Left alone, forests can regenerate in a matter of decades.

He says the relationship between mountain and city is two-way, if not always equal. Mountain dwellers benefit from selling crops to the city. People in Siem Reap — where most visitors stay when they go to the temples — rely on the mountain for water and wood, though most of them don’t know it.

Things have developed over time, he says, but not so drastically as to spoil the mountain way of life. Not all of the changes Mr. Norn has seen are for the better. The heat is hotter now, and the rains come at odd times.

Forests can regenerate partially in a matter of decades if left alone. That seems unlikely on Kulen, which faces heavy demand, but there is hope.

“The interdependency is not just a threat but also an opportunity,” says Nick Beresford, Country Director for UNDP in Cambodia. “Tourist dollars can support conservation even as the ecosystem on Kulen Mountain helps people in the city and around Angkor Wat.”

The tourism industry has brought better education and bigger homes. It can also contribute to conservation.

Many people in and around Kulen Mountain are concerned primarily with their own short-term interests. But UNDP is working with the government on policy reforms that take stock of all parties, even into the future.

Mr. Mean, who once hid from the Khmer Rouge in the forest, says that some people hold traditional beliefs that trees have spirits. They may even pray to a tree for help, for instance, if a child is sick. He doesn’t necessarily believe in spirits himself, but he does believe in the trees. How could he not?

Stone carvings at Bayon temple in Angkor depict the trees from the surrounding landscape.

After all, Mr. Mean was born in a one-room hut by a forest and has seen how the forest can provide. When he dies, he wants to be cremated. “The ashes can go anywhere my kids decide,” he says after some thinking. “That’s up to them.”

Come that time — with good planning and maybe a blessing from the spirits — the forests will be thick and green and giving, and his kids will be able to consign his ashes to the custody of the trees, to rest forever in the place that gave him peace during life.