During my recent assignment to Koh Kong province in Cambodia, I came across a project of forest concession for tourism. Situated on the southwestern corner of the country, Koh Kong is home to different forests that play a significant role in the country's rainfall and general environment.
However, the area is confronting a big change. The Cambodian government has put these forests on different concessions. These forests are divided. Much of its land has gone through logging concessions while some lands have been cleared for rubber plantations, new towns or commercial areas in the hands of foreign investors.
But there is also something called land concession, which is different from other kinds. The 180,000-hectare piece of logged land is leased by Minor Minor International, a Thailand-based business conglomerate. Under a 50-year concession, this piece of land is quietly left in natural reforestation. The concession started about 10 years ago; now the forest is recovering at a remarkable rate.
It can be called a forest, for its remarkable density of trees. But these trees will be cut without proper protection. Thanks to great contributions from the concessionaire, a park ranger team is set up and subsidised, receiving extra financial support, plus accommodations, weapons and tools required for protecting the reviving forest.
In recent years, the rangers have dealt with numerous forest encroachments. A number of snares, traps, and home-made guns have been captured. On the other hand, wildlife is coming back.
In the morning, bird songs fill the air. Macaques show at the river for a morning drink. Hornbills and dholes are spotted. Camera-trap photos show that the diversity of wildlife is growing.
I cruise the quiet river and find its water crystal-clear. Tree leaves sunk at 2m can be noticed easily. Yes, it is dry season, and the river is normally cleaner now than in rainy season. But it is quite rare to see any river in Thailand with water this clear. It shows there has been no deforestation in this area for a long time. Thus, very little soil erosion.
The reforestation is remarkable; however, the Cambodian government expects some development on this piece of land. The concession will be taken back if no business plan is achieved. So, the concessionaire has decided to run a tented-camp resort. The ecologically friendly resort offers a unique chance to stay amid a recovering forest, far away from any human community. So the project defines itself as a "forest concession for tourism".
I do not know if this project will be successful or not, but I think it is worth a try.
Thailand's forests have suffered due to logging, which swept large green areas off the country's map. An attempt at reforestation was carried out for decades, but the success is unlikely to come anytime soon. Thailand's forests have been lingering at around 30% of the total area for more than 30 years.
Deforestation has covered Thailand too long, and it has been quite active in recent years. Nan's lush mountains have been cleared and are being transformed into vast corn fields. Chiang Mai's forests are degraded and have become corn plantations. To prepare the land for the next season of crops, farmers burn fields and fill up valleys with smoke, which blankets cities to the north.
The Thai government admits that with limited budget and manpower, the task to look after all forests is an uphill battle.
Without co-operation from farmers who live next to the forests, the government's attempt to stop encroachments seems too far to reach. Forests will be occupied by poor families who will degrade it, then sell the land to investors. The forests will be gradually transformed into vast plantations of rubber, oil palm or corn.
Thailand has community forests. But their protection depends on communities' policies and leaders. Some are successful at keeping the forests green while some are not.
Forest concession for tourism may sound like quite a new idea for Thailand, and it's something the country could learn from. With proper rules, the forests will get better protection while the government earns from the concession. It can be a win-win solution.
Peerawat Jariyasombat is a travel writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.