I have just returned from a 9-day expedition to Prey Long forest in central Cambodia, which I visited in 2008 and 2009. On this expedition we had leading botanical experts from Denmark, the US and Cambodia as well as a camera crew from Denmark. With the addition of 2 military police that the Forestry Administration insisted we take and 4 locals we had a huge team of 15 in the end.
This was a tough trip in many respects but what really sticks in the mind is the utter destruction everywhere we went. The journey into the forest consisted of mile, after mile of cleared forest. Every day from dawn to dusk we listened to chainsaws in the distance clearing the last remaining luxury wood trees. It’s systematic and most of this has happened in just the last 2 to 3 years.
Prey Long is the last remaining intact lowland evergreen forest in all of mainland South East Asia and it’s also a vital watershed for much of central Cambodia. As with all forests around the world Prey Long holds hundreds of plants that locals claim to be medicinal, the vast majority of which have never been studied. Prey Long is unique in many ways and its loss will be dramatic.
Seeing how fast it is disappearing it was generally agreed at our campfire chats in the evenings that it will take just 4 to 5 years for the entire forest to be gone… this is in no way an exaggeration. It would appear that most of the luxury wood trees of any significant size are already gone and it will not take long for the smaller less valuable tress to be cut. Logging is a touchy subject in Cambodia as the forests have been the traditional cash cow of the rich for as long as anyone can remember. The trouble today is that the clearing of forests is wholesale and the huge areas being cleared are gone for good, in other areas entire species are becoming extinct through selective logging.
What many people fail to understand is that it takes many thousands of years to create these habitats and their numerous endemic species. A look at the forest that over took Angkor Wat shows how dramatically different an 800 year old forest looks and how denuded it is of species by comparison to virgin forest like Prey Long.
I was asked to join this expedition to help film the flora and fauna and as a second camera, while the Danes concentrated on Ida and Lars the botanical team from the University of Copenhagen. I didn’t expect to end up being part of the film the Danish team are making and I have to say It’s rather strange being on the other side of the camera.
Ida brought a couple of camera traps from Denmark which I set up at some mineral licks in the area in the hope of recording some of the more significant species to be found there. The cameras were the old film type not digital so I have to wait until the guys return to Denmark before I find out what’s on the films. We got a roll and a half from 1 site and just half a dozen from the other. I feel like a kid at Christmas waiting to find out what we got, hopefully something a bit more interesting than wild pigs.
We found numerous bomb craters around our camp. These are massive, you could almost fit a tennis court in one and according the one of the old locals with us they were dropped in 1973. I have filmed anti tank mines being blown up by de-miners here and those create a small crater maybe 1.5 meters across and thigh deep. I could feel the blast from those explosions from over 250 meters away so I dread to think what the blast was like from these. Someone told me that if you were within 1km of the explosion it would likely have blown your eardrums out. I have seen these craters all over Cambodia over the past decade and one thing that stands out is that almost 40 years later nothinggrows in them. One of the team took a soil sample this time so I am hopeful we might discover what the hell was in the bombs.
For anyone wondering, these bombs were dumped on Cambodia and Laos when the American bombers were unable to see their targets in Vietnam. Bizarrely the US military decided it was wrong to drop bombs in Vietnam when they could not see the targets clearly, yet it was completely acceptable to dump them on neighboring countries that they were not even at war with. If you care to find out more on the bombing of Laos and Cambodia there are many web sites on the subject including official US ones that have some amazingly detailed information. I spent several months looking into various issues regarding the Vietnam war in Cambodia and found some fascinating reports from US pilots. One I read said they were told that if they had bombs left when returning over Cambodia/Laos and saw wild elephants they were to target them as they had the potential to be used by the Vietcong to transport weapons on the Ho Chi Minh trail. What planet are these people from?
The return journey took us through a couple of villages I have not seen before and I was disappointed but not surprised to see numerous piles of luxury woods waiting to be collected. After a couple of hours we started to come across more huge areas of forest that had been cleared to grow cassava. Over the past 3 years I have seen massive clearing of Cambodia’s forests across the country and most of it is to feed the ethanol/bio-fuel market. Being “green” is feeding the destruction of not just Prey Long, but all of Cambodia’s primary forests, and at a frightening rate. Sadly subsidies from governments around the world are funding this massive destruction, supposedly in an effort to reduce global warming… clearly these policies are having the opposite effect.
Lastly, the noodles! We came across this box of noodles with a quite extraordinary claim. Not sure the tag line of “First in, First out” is exactly suitable for food either.