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War and conservation in Cambodia

Written By vibykhmer on Sunday, June 21, 2009 | 10:55 PM

Bokor National Park, Cambodia. Heavily armed forestry rangers and their Australian security consultant arrest a poacher with an endangered Hog Badger during a night patrol. TRAFFIC Asia 2006. Photo by: Adam Oswell with WWF.
The Kouprey Bos sauveli, a species of wild ox. Illustration by: Helmut Diller.
The Asian elephant has been hunted out of the forest around Sre Chis. Photo by: Rhett Butler.
Critically Endangered Siamese crocodile in Thailand: the species has disappeared from the Sri Chis forests. Photo by: Rhett Butler.
While tigers still reside in the forest around Sri Chis, their population has declined according to interviews. Photo by: Martin Harvey with WWF.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia. An anti-wildlife trade billboard outside a local school. Part of a government education program that aims to educate Cambodians about the country's wildlife laws. TRAFFIC Asia 2006. Photo by: Adam Oswell of WWF.

June 21, 2009

Jeremy Hance

The decades-long conflict in Cambodia devastated not only the human population of the Southeast Asian country but its biodiversity as well. The conflict led to widespread declines of species in the once wildlife-rich nation while steering traditional society towards unsustainable hunting practices, resulting in a situation where wildlife is still in decline in Cambodia, according to a new study from researchers with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Although many biodiversity hotspots have seen their share of conflict—the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Vietnam—the relationship between war and conservation has rarely been studied. Social scientist Michael Mascia with WWF and Colby Loucks, Deputy Director of the WWF's Conservation Science Program interviewed Cambodian villagers to understand the impacts of war on village’s surrounding wilderness.

“Armed conflict is a social phenomenon often detrimental to wildlife and wildlife habitat, but the legacy of armed conflict for wildlife in post-conflict settings remains unexplored,” Loucks and Mascia, along with other authors, write in their paper published in Conservation Letters.

Since scientific data for wildlife abundance in Cambodia was lacking, Loucks and Mascia depended on the knowledge of locals in the Sre Chis commune, a collection of six villages in eastern Kratie province. Asking the interviewees about 18 different species, the researchers found that the decades-long conflict in Cambodia caused deep-declines in wildlife abundance, the loss of some species altogether, and moved the society from subsistence hunting to commercial exploitation.

“We looked at how conflict directly and indirectly shaped people’s use of wildlife – during and after conflict. The influx of guns, the emergence of new markets, the forced hunting teams – all were directly related to conflict. It was the conflict, lastly, for well over two decades that created the environment for permanent shifts in livelihoods to the dependence on the trade of wildlife,” Loucks and Mascia told mongabay.com

Wildlife declined from pre-1953 (when the conflict began) to 2005, but the most measured declines occurred in the 1970s—when the conflict was at its worst. The researchers found that 14 of 18 species declined, while five disappeared altogether, including the Asian elephant, the kouprey, Eld’s deer, hog deer, and Siamese crocodile. Before the conflict arrived in Sre Chis, the villagers only sold one species to outside markets—the guar—but by the 1970s seven more species were being trafficked: elephants, banteng, Eld’s deer, hog deer, tiger, leopard and sun bear.

“It is clear to [the villagers] that there are fewer individuals of the species…and that they need to go further from the villages to find them,” Loucks said.

Shockingly every one of these species (or subspecies) is threatened with extinction according to the IUCN Red List, except the Indochinese leopard which hasn’t been surveyed. The sun bear is considered Vulnerable, while the Indochinese tiger, Asian elephant, Eld’s deer, and hog deer are all listed as Endangered. The Siamese crocodile, the banteng, a species of wild cattle, and a wild ox known as the kouprey are each Critically Endangered.

As related by Loucks and Mascia, these declines consistently followed societal changes brought on by war: additional firearms, the beginning of a wildlife trade for international markets, and a Khmer Rouge policy that actually mandated hunting. Prior to the 1970s villagers hunted with the crossbow, since guns were either illegal or difficult to obtain, but when the Khmer Rouge came to Sre Chis they handed out guns to locals and paid them to hunt. During the conflict, wildlife meat went to soldier on the front lines.

The conflict in Cambodia ended in 1991, but the interviewers discovered that wildlife declines continued due to the technological and social changes brought on by war. Instead of hunting for soldiers, the villagers had now begun to hunt for commercial sale in markets both in Cambodia and abroad.

“Documenting these impacts and the subsequent ripple effects in post-conflict society – shifting livelihood strategies and the decline of wildlife – allow us to understand the links between conflict and wildlife decline,” Loucks and Mascia said. “This sheds light on the importance of re-engaging with communities, empowering them to manage their resources, and providing economic opportunities soon after the cessation of conflict. With this information, we can design more effective conservation strategies, tailored to local conditions.”

Importance of conservation to postconflict society

The UN has drafted important guidelines for ‘disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration’ of combatants (known as DDR), but they don’t take into account the conservation of natural resources, according to Loucks and Mascia. Even though many conflicts begin with—or in some way involve—over-exploitation of a nation’s resources.

Therefore the authors suggest “that conservation investments in postconflict societies should be integrated within and support broader peace-building efforts targeting combatants, noncombatants, civil society organizations, and the state”.

Mascia goes on to say that “many conservation strategies are consistent with current approaches to peace-building, such as capacity-building for government agencies and local communities, fostering good governance and rule of law, and promoting alternative livelihoods and income generating activities. In societies where natural resources are a source of conflict, strengthening civil society and good governance in the environmental sector is necessary not just for effective conservation of biodiversity, but for peace-building generally.”

Loucks and Mascia see conservation as a tool to aid with disarmament in postconflict society by justifying confiscating weapons when used for illegal hunting. In addition, conservation organization act as important support for newly formed governments by “promoting rule of law; encouraging participatory and transparent decision making; and supporting other activities that foster good governance within the conservation sector and beyond,” according to the paper.

Furthermore, the authors argue, conservation groups have the capacity to monitor postconflict efforts to make certain both individuals and large-scale investments are not engaging in unsustainable natural resource exploitation. Instead of handing such postconflict countries over to international corporations for large-scale monoculture plantations, industrial agriculture or mining—which may degrade the environment and stoke further conflict—conservation organizations could manage environmental restoration projects.

Such restoration projects “would serve multiple purposes” the authors write, including “employment of both ex-combatants and noncombatants, enhanced delivery of ecosystem services to resource-dependent communities, critical habitat for wildlife, and reduced wildlife trade by providing alternative sources of income.”

Finally, the authors recommend that conservation groups be allowed to perform capacity-building at the community level in order to reach out to remote areas, places where a new government may not have influence or even means of communication. According to the paper, such programs “can empower local actors and strengthen local governance regimes, absorb ex-combatants into the labor force, and provide legal economic opportunities for ex-combatants and noncombatants alike.”

The people—not just the wildlife—of post-conflict nations would benefit greatly from increased conservation and environmental awareness, according to the paper.

“We believe that the UN, governments, civil society, and NGOs all have a role they can play to integrate natural resource conservation, biodiversity protection, and peace-building efforts from the local to national or global scale. To design conservation strategies that are both ecologically and socially sustainable, we need to build tailored solutions that bridge the traditional divide between security and the environment.” Loucks and Mascia told mongabay.com.


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