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Summary of National Report on Protected Areas and Development



Ninety percent of Cambodia’s 12.8 million people live and derive income from the floodplain lowland in the centre and south which occupies less than 30 percent of the country. Most protected areas are relatively isolated and located in areas of low population density. The significant exceptions are the protected areas on the western border of the country in provinces with high populations densities largely due to recent immigration, and the protected areas within Siem Reap Province, including parts of the Tonle Sap Multiple Use Area.

Over one third of Cambodians live in poverty. The national protected area system coincides with regions of medium to high poverty and relatively low but rapidly growing populations. Increasingly, protected areas will come under pressure for the development benefits they can provide, especially to the poor. A system of rights of access and tenure linking existing communities with protected areas is beginning to evolve, as tenure and ownership arrangements over land and other resources throughout Cambodia are clarified. This definition of rights is a critical step in the effective conservation of protected areas.

The national protected area system covers over 21 percent of the country. It comprises 23 protected areas created through a Royal Decree in 1993 and managed by the Ministry of Environment (MOE), and a growing number of fish sanctuaries and protected forest areas set up through the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries (MAFF). The system also includes provincial protected areas set to increase significantly in number once the current legislative framework and guidelines for protected areas are clearly defined at national level. Cambodia has one of the highest percentages of national territory within protected areas in the world and has a goal of taking that area to 25 percent by the year 2005.

Governance reform

The way a government is structured has important implications for protected areas. An overriding force in the current political landscape of Cambodia is a commitment to decentralisation and the transfer of political, fiscal and administrative powers to local authorities at commune level. Decentralisation will facilitate the active participation of local communities and officials in the planning, implementation and monitoring of development. Communities located near protected areas will benefit from new structures and processes that involve them in decisions concerning the management of protected areas. MOE plans to introduce a Law on Protected Areas Management that provides a much-needed management structure and system for protected areas and builds on and reinforces the government’s decentralisation policies.

In the next five to ten years, the management of protected areas will be a measuring stick of the effectiveness of the governance reform. The objective of attaining sustainable socio-economic development and social justice through governance reform can be implemented by fully realising the role for protected areas in local political and economic systems. Protected areas and their surrounding regions lie at the centre of complex land use and land tenure issues, and they need to play a critical role in piloting and demonstrating the government’s reform measures.

Development planning

The process of defining economic policies, development plans and associated budgets is critically important for protected areas. Protected area managers must give greater attention to participating in those processes and seeking to influence the priorities set through them. They should explore the use of economic policies and instruments to influence development behaviour and achieve conservation objectives.

Also, they will need to begin shaping development plans and the allocation of budgets so that investment flows from key sectors to the protected areas and natural services and products they provide. A shift is needed from a defensive mode looking inward at the immediate challenges of protected area management, to looking beyond their boundaries and actively engaging in the planning and priority setting of development in surrounding landscapes. It is those policies and plans that will determine the wellbeing and continuing contribution of protected areas to national development.

Protected area planning and management

An intimate working partnership between MOE and MAFF is essential for the welfare of the national protected areas system. Equally, it will become increasingly important for the ministries to build partnerships with other stakeholders because of the growing importance of the local level.

MOE and MAFF will both need to work through the implications of decentralisation for protected area management and determine the balance between the number of staff and budgets at the central offices in Phnom Penh and at provincial and protected area levels. All evidence indicates that both MOE and MAFF protected areas need more staff for improved management. The demands on staff are increasing. Protected areas managers are now expected to be community development and poverty alleviation officers, as well as conservation managers – yet they do not have the mandate, skills and capacity to fulfil this community development role. Also, the new responsibilities in conflict resolution and in working with key economic sectors goes well beyond the experience and training of many staff.

Many protected areas still face problems in reaching consensus on the physical demarcation of their boundaries. More extensive guidelines for zoning are required to develop zonation systems for each protected area based on its habitats, species and patterns of use by local people and specific rules and regulations that govern how different zones will be used. These rules are especially important for any subsistence harvests that might be allowed in some parts of protected areas. Determining the location of core zones should be a high priority.

The cluster approach to protected areas

The cluster approach provides an opportunity to quickly establish a framework for management over a group of parks at the same time - including the land and resources linking them. It allows for integrated regional planning in which the management of linked protected areas becomes a tool in sustainable economic development of an entire landscape. The concept is immediately relevant for the effective management of Cambodia’s protected areas in a situation of acute resource scarcity. Most importantly it would allow protected areas to be recognised and managed as productive units within the socio-economic landscape of which they are a part.

Investment in protected areas

In 2001, MOE estimated that it received approximately 0.18 percent of the national government budget, almost a threefold increase over ten years. Also, a significant amount of financing for protected areas and biodiversity conservation has been provided in the past 10 years as grants from multi lateral and bilateral aid agencies and NGOs. Yet, MOE’s budget barely covers staff salaries and basic administration.

Cambodia’s expenditure for protected areas is very low when compared to other countries in the region. Given the commitment of more than 21 percent of the country to this form of land use and its basic contribution to development in many key sectors, investment priorities will need to be reviewed. Increasing protected area budgets will require increased allocation from central government, transfers from development sectors for services received and raising local revenues.

As development benefits, such as providing stable water flows to irrigation systems or hydropower facilities, are better understood, a proportion of the revenue from water and power charges will need to go automatically to safeguarding the service through effective management of the protected area. The government will need to provide the appropriate system of economic incentives and regulations to promote the “user pays” approach.

Longer-term and sustainable funding options will need to be considered. Perhaps the most promising option is a trust fund at the national level and trust funds for individual and clustered protected areas providing a stable financing mechanism that can be supplemented by contributions over time. The process of setting up an efficient and transparent system of trust funds to supplement government budgets while simultaneously involving stakeholders will require consistent effort and support over several years.

Environmental impact assessment (EIA)

The EIA system is not functioning in an effective manner due to the limited capacity and resources available to the EIA Department, the weak working links across departments within the Ministry of Environment and with many of the sectoral agencies, and the low priority which the EIA process is given across all arms of government.

There are numerous cases where developments have been planned without due respect for the EIA process or MOE’s role in environmental review. Many have had potential to affect protected areas or to benefit from their services and products. These development proposals have been initiated by government or the private sector and funded from foreign investments, grants or loans. Often several arms of government have facilitated the plans. EIA is an essential mechanism of government for safeguarding protected areas and identifying opportunities for developers to contribute to their maintenance. The government and the international community must invest in the EIA system so that the development benefits from protected areas continue to flow to the national economy.

Poverty alleviation

Protected areas can play a central role in alleviating poverty, especially when strategies take advantage of the range of development services which a group of linked protected areas can offer. By ensuring every sector pays for the benefits they receive from protected area services and encouraging the poor to take advantage of market opportunities, they can reap the benefits of domestic and foreign interests. Revenue generation for the poor may come, for example, in the form of tourism, NTFP commercialisation and transfer payments from developers.

Strategies for community development and poverty reduction are needed for each cluster of protected areas with collaborative management a cross-cutting theme. Special attention should be given to providing necessary support to immigrants.

All government resettlement and demobilisation plans should receive comprehensive environmental assessment, , especially when protected areas may be affected. Mitigation programs should be designed into every plan so that the use of natural resources is well managed and sustainable, and the natural values of protected areas are maintained.

Co-management has been gaining support as a mechanism for reducing poverty and for ensuring sustainable use of natural resources near protected areas. In May 2002, the Prime Minister issued a decision requiring MOE to designate 10 to 30 percent of every protected area as a buffer zone to be co-managed with local communities on a sustainable basis. Because financial and staff resources are limited, the process should be undertaken country wide in stages by ranking groups of protected areas in order of priority for this kind of action.

Moving forward with co-management arrangements requires new skills and capacities within the affected communities. This is especially related to the capacity of protected area managers to have the resources and skills to support communities with the technical advice and assessments they need to manage their shared resources effectively.


Deforestation is the most common threat to biodiversity in Cambodia and to economic productivity in many key development sectors, such as agriculture, fisheries, tourism, energy and health. The wellbeing of Cambodia’s protected areas is therefore intimately linked with the management of its forest.

The four most important forest management issues effecting the potential of protected areas to fulfil their potential as a critical development strategy in the sector are:

  1. The conservation of forests within existing protected areas;
  2. The inclusion of other important and under-represented forest ecosystems within the national system of protected areas of various categories including protected forests;
  3. The inclusion of protection zones within forest concessions as buffers to existing protected areas and covering sensitive environmental areas and regions of biodiversity wealth elsewhere in the concession; and,
  4. The role of community forests in achieving sustainable forest use.

Protection zones along the border with existing protected areas are especially important. Allowing logging up to the border invites illegal activity, but even with the strictest control it has the potential to negatively impact on natural systems within the protected area. In 1999, the Prime Minister recommended that such buffers should extend for 2-3 km from a protected area border. That recommendation needs to be put into practice.

A top priority must be DFW and MOE collaboration in controlling illegal logging within the protected area system. A special MAFF/MOE forest protection force should operate in each protected area cluster.


Agriculture has been compromised by unsustainable practices leading to falling production for unit effort. Formal protected areas and protection zones in agricultural areas provide many services and products essential to agricultural productivity. This implies:

  • Adopting a landscape perspective as a basis for agricultural planning and management in which protected areas and regimes of biodiversity protection are directly linked to maintaining agricultural productivity;
  • Focusing on understanding and working with native biodiversity (both wild species and those that constitute local agricultural biodiversity) and the ecological processes important for sustainable agricultural production; and
  • Developing and adopting measures to encourage native biodiversity throughout the agricultural landscape, wherever possible linking this with more formal protected areas through protection corridors and zones.

The issuing of land concessions for industrial agriculture provides an opportunity for the user pays principle to be applied in financing protection. Each commercial operator in the agriculture sector should pay a fee for protection of critical ecosystem services and products.


Cambodia is heavily dependent on its freshwater and marine fisheries to provide livelihoods and nutrition to its people. There has been a consistent decline in the catch per unit effort and in the value of catch. Also, there has been a reduction in the catch of some long-lived species, and a shift to those that are smaller and short-lived.

Protected areas of various kinds play an essential role as an insurance policy in the fisheries sector. As a rule, to safeguard against fishery collapse it is desirable to set aside permanent reserves covering 10-20 percent of the breeding, nursery and migratory areas.

Cambodia needs to develop national capacities for managing fisheries resources via two closely related strategies:

  1. The development and management of protected areas for natural living aquatic resource conservation and production; and,
  2. A framework of regulations and incentives for the management and exploitation of fisheries resources in a sustainable way.

Management plans for fish sanctuaries and protected areas benefiting the fisheries sector need to be prepared with local communities and other stakeholders and include arrangements for collaborative management, zoning and enforcement, prohibitions and allowed uses and a clear definition of roles. The plans should be short and may initially cover more than one protected area.

Each lot operator in the fisheries sector should pay a fee for protection of the stocks. The process of auctioning of fishing lots covering freshwater areas and licensing of fishing activities in marine environments provides an opportunity for the user pays principle to be applied in financing protection.

Water resource management

Cambodia suffers severe and regular drought and throughout the year it is becoming increasingly difficult to access clean water. Cambodia’s protected areas play a vital role in the management and conservation of water resources and are an important “quiet partner” in the development of the water sector. There are seven main hydrological functions of protected areas which are of growing development significance and which need to be the focus of well defined investment and management strategies:

  1. Water storage and natural flood regulation;
  2. Water supply (irrigation, drinking water supply and hydropower);
  3. Instream and estuarine fishing;
  4. Flushing of pollutants;
  5. Transportation and navigation;
  6. Recreational use of water, including tourism; and
  7. Microclimate impacts on surroundings.

The kind of information that might influence sector investment towards protected areas is not available to planners. As a result there is no appreciation of the value of hydrological benefits to the economy. Consequently it is difficult to express the level of effort which should go into safeguarding those values in budgetary and staffing terms. The initial economic assessments undertaken through the PAD Review should become a routine component of river basin or catchment management planning. Protected area values in safeguarding hydrophysical processes that lead to high quality and secure water supplies and water resource services need to enter into economic planning for regions and individual sectors. Special attention should be given to the obligations of concession holders in fisheries, forestry and agriculture, industrial facilities, energy facilities and irrigation and water supply systems.

Energy development

Protected areas have the potential to provide significant energy services and products – but are also very sensitive to exploitation. In some protected areas or zones within them, the long term development benefits of biodiversity conservation are too valuable to allow energy uses. In other protected areas, careful use of energy benefits can be sustained.

Fuelwood harvesting and consumption is the most immediate threat to protected areas in this sector. Yet, the emergence of hydropower and oil and gas development could be more of a problem in the near to long term if this potential is not planned and managed according to adequate environmental assessment, monitoring and investment in mitigation and conservation.

The first hydropower scheme and second proposed project are both in national parks. Many other schemes have been proposed for location in or close to various protected areas. The full effects of the projects for other sectors, such as tourism, and for other development and conservation values of the host protected areas have not been adequately studied. Two priority strategies require:

  1. An effective legal structure for EIA of energy development proposals within protected areas;
  2. Initial biodiversity studies and environmental assessments prior to decisions on energy projects.

Also, each commercial operator in the energy sector should pay for protection of critical ecosystem services and products that they use. Equally important to the user pays concept is that part of the payment should go back to safeguarding the resource and natural systems concerned. Use must be linked to protection in the beneficiary’s mind.

The decision requiring 10 to 30 percent of every protected area to be a co-managed buffer zone is an important innovation to open the way for the designation of community use areas where the harvesting of fuelwood can continue.


Nature-based tourism can be an effective means to establish a reliable revenue source for protected areas and the communities that surround them. Cambodia is in a unique position of having a large protected area system yet to be tapped for tourism. It can take a leading role within the region by setting in place the capacities and framework to develop tourism for a network of protected areas in a way that is sustainable and profitable for local communities and businesses.

A national plan for tourism and protected areas should identify priority clusters of protected areas with special promise for tourism and appropriate sites for demonstration projects. A high priority should be the south west cluster of national parks which already attracts tourists, has ready access and a diversity of protected area “products” which could be marketed as a package. Demonstration projects in promising locations are needed to guide action in other areas as additional resources become available.

Studies indicate that tourists, even “backpackers” travelling on limited budgets, are willing to pay significant tariffs for nature-based experiences if the funds go to conservation and community development in the areas visited. A review of current financing arrangements should recommend a framework of economic instruments to apply to tourism in the protected area system.

Strong community involvement is important for the long-term sustainability of nature-based tourism and community development. The establishment of cooperative management committees in these communities can provide a transparent and equitable system for managing tourism initiatives and distributing income emanating from tourism.

Priorities for action

The PAD Review has shown that protected areas are vital development assets – they are centres of development services and products essential to Cambodia’s growing economy. Only by managing protected areas as productive parts of wider development landscapes, will resource users appreciate the benefits of conserving their natural qualities.

To succeed, protected area managers will need to understand and express those qualities in economic terms. Protected areas need to be promoted and marketed, because this is the only way they will ever be effectively integrated in Cambodia’s national accounts and socio-economic development plans.

While it is essential to increase demand for protected area products, managers need to ensure that the uses of them are sustainable and appropriate. In other words, the natural capital held in protected areas must not be degraded – it must be maintained and enhanced – because that will bring the greatest development returns over the long term.

This national report has examined protected areas from the perspective of local communities and development sectors. The relationships between protected areas and resource users have been assessed and management strategies defined which increase protected area development contributions while better conserving them. The many recommended strategies relating to each field of development can be distilled into five main priorities for action:

  1. A national strategy and sector plans for protected areas;
  2. Protected area trust funds and financing based on a user pays policy;
  3. A pilot demonstration project for the south-west cluster of protected areas;
  4. Economic analysis of protected areas;
  5. A national protected area training program.

Protected areas need to be placed much higher on the government’s list of priorities and to receive higher levels of investment accordingly. One important way to increase that flow will be by adopting the user pays principle. Whether they are government sector users such as water supply or irrigation agencies, private sector developers associated with hydropower schemes or tourism enterprise, or even local communities - if they use protected area services or products, they should pay for the privilege. This is a central theme of the report.

The PAD Review provides strong arguments for protected area conservation to be considered a priority in local and sector planning and development. Sectors and local government need to appreciate the benefits they receive from protected areas and to invest in their maintenance. The future of protected area management in Cambodia is not in building strong armies to hold development forces at bay, but in having those forces invest in conservation because they see that it is in their best interests to do so and they recognise protected areas as a vital development strategy.