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Monday, April 20, 2009

Cambodia faces alien threat

Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN Cambodia’s alien invader - the mimosa pigra, or giant mimosa, a thorny plant originally from the Amazon jungle - growing by a roadside in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district.

Written by Christopher Shay and Khouth Sophak Chakrya
An invasive plant species from the Amazon jungle is threatening Cambodia's biodiversity as well as costing farmers and fishermen lots of time and money

AN alien has invaded Cambodia and taken over large swaths of land, threatening the Kingdom's ecosystem, and it appears the uninvited guest is here to stay.

The alien threat is the mimosa pigra, or giant mimosa, a thorny plant originally from the Amazon jungle that is out-competing Cambodia's indigenous plants and putting the country's biodiversity at risk. It is also costing Cambodian farmers and fishermen time and money.

"It's a very strong, hardy plant. It can tolerate flooding, and it can tolerate dry [conditions]," Robert van Zalinge at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said.

Taking over flooded plains that have been cleared of natural vegetation, the giant mimosa forms dense, homogenous stands, says Chai-Aing Sopharith, the ecotourist manager at Osmose, an NGO that operates around the Tonle Sap.

Neou Bonheur, the deputy secretary general at the Tonle Sap Basin Authority, said that though studies have tended to be small, it's clear the giant mimosa problem has spread across the entire Kingdom.

Despite the threat, Long Kheng, the core area director of the Tonle Sap Conservation Project, said that at the moment, "we don't have any program to control the invasive species".

The alien plant has made only small incursions into the most biologically diverse areas around the lake, but according to Long Kheng, it still poses a serious ecological threat.

"If we don't take action, the mimosa pigra will destroy the ecosystem of the area," he said.

The rapacious plant threatens 20 percent of the Tonle Sap flood area - a "huge area", said Zalinge.

The plant has already become the bane of Cambodian farmers, who spend money and labour clearing their plots of the plant.

Srey Kong Bunna, 37, a farmer from Phsa Krom in Kampong Chhnang, said that he regularly chopped down the plant and even tried burning the plants down, but nothing has stopped it from reappearing.

"I pay at least 100,000 riels (US$25) every year to clear the giant mimosa from my small rice crop," Srey Kong Bunna said.

The giant mimosa can survive floods and fires, and can grow back from its root system, said Neou Bonheur.

It's not just the farmers who worry about the giant mimosa infestation. Fishermen fear the plant as well.

"We worry that we won't be able to catch fish in the future because the giant mimosa grows in our lake," Srey Kong Bunna said, adding that fish refuse to spawn in areas with a giant mimosa infestation.

There have been no comprehensive studies on the economic effects of the plant on Cambodia's fish stock, but fishermen, conservation groups and scientists agree the plant has a serious negative impact.

"You can imagine that vast homogenous stands - especially of a thorny species that doesn't provide much food - will be avoided by fish," said Zalinge.

There are a few ways to combat an invasive species, but they all take money and political will - both things the Kingdom is lacking at the moment, Zalinge said.

In Australia, biocontrol - the introduction of a predator of the invasive species - has been used against the giant mimosa with some success, but the initial costs required to ensure that the new alien pest will not also damage the ecosystem are very high. But as Zalinge points out, "It's a lot of work initially but once it's released, it works for free."

Manual removal has also been used effectively in Vietnam in small areas, and the WCS recommends this technique for the Tonle Sap core area where the infestation is still scattered.

There is also a Minnesota-based chemical company, MSK International Chemical, started by a Cambodian refugee, that claims to have a comprehensive plan to deal with the giant mimosa in Cambodia.

The active ingredient of the company's chemical, triclopyr - approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency for use in aquatic areas - "does not affect human health", according to Darith Sokchan, the deputy director of Mincam Cambodia, the company that imports the chemical from the US.

By using aerial photography and mapping software to prioritise treatment combined with proper training of sprayers, MSK Chemical thinks it can control the plant.

But Zalinge at WCS stressed that the most effective way of slowing the plant's spread was to protect the natural vegetation in sensitive areas and says that if native species are replanted after the giant mimosa has been removed, then perhaps they could better compete with the invasive mimosa.

With a combination of techniques to battle the invader, Preap Visarto, the deputy director of plant protection at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said Cambodia could become a more productive nation, liberating its farms and fisheries from the menace. But, he said, the Kingdom simply does not have the funds.

And if the money does not arrive, Zalinge predicted that "the worst is still to come".
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Telecoms market in Cambodia overcrowded

Cambodia has just 15 million people, and is one of the poorest countries in the region.

And yet it has nine mobile phone operators.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: Last year the number of mobile phones in use worldwide passed the 3.3 billion mark. That means that more than half the world's population has a mobile phone, making it the fastest-spreading technology in human history. Cambodia is not what you would call a major player in global telecoms. Its population is relatively small and relatively poor - 15 million people of whom around one-third live below the poverty line. Many millions live just above that line.

And yet Cambodia has nine mobile phone companies, with two more still to launch. So Khun is the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications and has been in his job since 1992. Asked what he thinks is the most important change in telecoms in his time, he answered: Liberalisation - allowing private companies to enter the mobile telecoms market. The government created the chance, and the participants came. And they've kept coming - five mobile phone companies have launched in the last 15 months.

THOMAS HUNDT: Well doubtless the market is competitive.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: Thomas Hundt is the CEO of Smart, the latest entrant.

I asked him why Smart has started up. He says one reason is that market penetration is low - 25 percent. In other words, just one person in four owns a mobile phone. In fact, Hundt believes the real penetration rate is probably far lower since many people have more than one SIM card.

HUNDT: There are a couple of factors that are supporting the market. First of all the population growth. Secondly we have here in Cambodia 24-25 percent penetration. So looking at other countries in Asia we have a long way to go to penetrate the entire market.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: Cambodia's telecoms market is hyper-competitive, but if the competitors agree on anything, it is that the market cannot sustain so many players.

Syed Azmeer is the chief marketing officer of Hello, which has been here in various guises since 1992.

SYED AZMEER: Basically it is a war of attrition. People are giving away free minutes and free SIM cards and there comes a certain point where they can't do that any more. Some of the not-so-serious players - once they amass a certain number of subscribers - will be up for sale. That's classic in any telco scenario.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: Evidence of this war of attrition is widespread, with huge billboards across Phnom Penh, and advertising campaigns in most media - and even plastered on the tuk-tuk taxis that ferry people around the capital.

Azmeer says Hello doubled its subscriber base to 700,000 last year through an aggressive marketing campaign. Good though that is, it means Hello has just a third the number of subscribers of the country's dominant player, MobiTel.

MobiTel claims 60 percent of the market, and says it grew by one-third last year.

And where MobiTel leads, the others have to follow. The low-hanging fruit has been taken in the relatively well-off cities and large towns, so the next stage is for telecoms companies to expand their operations in rural areas, where more than 80 percent of the population live.

But that requires substantial investment. Despite operating in financially-straitened times, MobiTel's parent company last month signed a loan for USD$100 million.

The money will be used to expand its coverage in rural areas, says MobiTel's chief operating officer Kay Lot.

KAY LOT: Well I think the urban growth is still there, but it won't last. There are only so many target markets that are still out there in the urban. So the longer-term strategy is to go out more into the rural areas.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: To that end, says Kay Lot, MobiTel is erecting hundreds of new base stations in the countryside each year. Its more established competitors are also focusing their efforts outside the cities as the push to capture subscribers moves away from urban Cambodia.

The dominant player, MobiTel, will doubtless continue to do well. And several of its competitors will certainly be around in two or three years time too. But the multi-million dollar question is which of the nine operators will by then have hung up on Cambodia's tough and overcrowded mobile telecoms market.
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Country profile: Cambodia

Facts and statistics on Cambodia including history, population, politics, geography, economy, religion and climate

Potted history of the country: The Khmer empire stretched over south-east Asia from the 9th to the 15th century. Over the next four centuries, it was variously under Thai or Vietnamese rule, with short periods of independence in between. It became a French protectorate in 1863, and part of French Indochina in 1887, before gaining independence in 1953. After a five-year civil war, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, won power and evacuated the cities, sending the population to work in the countryside. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died in Pol Pot's "killing fields". Peace was finally re-established in 1991, with the United Nations given a mandate to enforce the ceasefire.

Political pressure points: The prime minister, Hun Sen, has been in office since 1985. No stranger to controversy, the former Khmer Rouge cadre seized power from his co-prime minister, Prince Ranariddh, in a coup that brought renewed fighting. His increasing authoritarianism and corrupt capitalism has led to street clashes over sales of prime land to overseas investors.

Population mix: Khmer 95%; other 5% (Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham and smaller ethnic groups)

Religious makeup: Buddhist 93%, Muslim 3%, Christian 2%

Main languages: Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese

Living national icons: Chhim Sothy (artist), Preap Sovath (singer), Eh Phoutong (kickboxer)

At a glance Location:

Indo-Chinese peninsula Neighbours: Laos, Thailand, Vietnam
Size: 69,898 square miles
Population: 14,655,950 (65th)
Density: 209.7 people per square mile
Capital city: Phnom Penh (population 1,466,000)
Head of state: King Norodum Sihamoni
Head of government: Prime minister Hun Sen
Currency: Riel Time zone: Cambodian standard time (+7 hours)

International dialling code: +855
Website: Data correct on Monday 20 April 2009

Landscape and climate: Cambodia has a long Gulf of Thailand coastline. Inland, its major features are the Tonlé Sap - the largest freshwater lake in south-east Asia - which expands and shrinks dramatically each year, and the Mekong river, which flows 300 miles through the country. Most Cambodians live along the rich alluvial plains flooded during the monsoon between May and October.

Highest point: Phnum Aora,l 1,810 metres

Area covered by water: 1,745 square miles

Healthcare and disease: One of the world's poorest countries, although its rate of HIV/Aids infection has improved in recent years. The risks from dengue fever, malaria and Japanese encephalitis are extremely high, along with waterborne diseases such as hepatitis A and typhoid. Many Cambodian children suffer from malnutrition.

Average life expectancy: 56/61

Average number of children per mother: 3.3

Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births: 540

Infant deaths per 1,000 births: 82

Adults HIV/Aids rate: 1.3%

Doctors per 1,000 head of population: 0.2

Adult literacy rate: 76.3% (m 85.8%/f 67.7%)

Economic outlook: Dependent on garment exports, booming tourism and foreign investment for construction, it is destined for a sharp slowdown. Estimates suggest GDP may grow just 1% this year, down from about 7%.

Main industries: Plywood, electric energy, cigarettes

Key crops/livestock: Rice, manioc, maize, sugar cane, banana, pigs, cattle, buffaloes

Key exports: Rubber, clothing, rice

GDP: £3,707m (119th)

GDP per head: £261

Unemployment rate: 7.1%

Proportion of global carbon emissions: 0.01%

Most popular tourist attractions: Temples of Angkor Wat, and the ruins of the ancient capital Koh Ker.

Local recommendation: Beng Mealea a 12th-century temple built to the same design as Angkor Wat. It is 50 miles north of the original complex, but a world away from the hordes of tourists thronging its famous cousin.

Traditional dish: Amok (curry, usually made with fish, containing coconut milk and turmeric)

Foreign tourist visitors per year: 1,421,615

Media freedom index: 126

Did you know ... Before ascending the throne, King Sihamoni was a classical dance instructor.

National anthem:
Temples are asleep in the forest
Remembering the splendour of Moha Nokor
Like a rock, the Khmer race is eternal.

· Information correct on date of first publication, Monday 20 April 2009.
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