In a remarkable ten-year effort, Conservation International Cambodia (CI Cambodia) has restored approximately 600 hectares of the Tonle Sap's flooded forest, a critical ecosystem within Cambodia's largest freshwater lake. 

The ambitious project, undertaken in collaboration with the Cambodian government through the Fisheries Administration, Provincial Department of Environment, local authorities, development partners and local communities, aims to rejuvenate a region crucial for biodiversity and local livelihoods.

Since 2010, CI Cambodia has supported the planting of over 270,000 seedlings, with plans to restore more than 2,660 hectares by 2030. 

“This important mission is part of our conservation programmes, which are in line with national policies and have the primary aim of restoring nature,” said Oum Sony, country director of CI Cambodia.

“We protect and restore the flooded forests, which are an important breeding and feeding habitat for fish and other aquatic species, and play a crucial role for biodiversity and ecosystems, benefiting people across all generations,” he added.

The restoration effort focuses on replanting rare tree species such as Ta Ou (Terminalia cambodiana), S’dey (Crudia chrysantha), and Roteang (Homalium brevidens), which are vital for improving flood resiliency and preventing fires. 

These conservation measures are part of CI Cambodia's broader Freshwater Conservation Program.

“It integrates sustainable management, the development of community livelihoods and biodiversity conservation across various protected areas in Cambodia, including the Central Cardamom Mountains, Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, and Vern Sai-Siem Pang National Park,” according to CI Cambodia. 

A large flock of birds at the Prek Teal reservation area on the Tonle Sap Lake. Hong Raksmey

The Tonle Sap Lake, an area of irrecoverable carbon, is home to over 300 species of fish, including globally endangered mega fish.

CI Cambodia’s restoration activities involve supporting local communities to establish and manage seedling nurseries, for planting at the start of each rainy season. 

This community-based approach not only aids in ecological restoration but also contributes to the local economy, enhancing financial management capacities and fostering a sense of ownership among community members.

“The restoration of the flooded forest is part of the Freshwater Conservation Program that CI Cambodia has been implementing since 2010,” said the organisation.

This initiative involves collaboration with all stakeholders, including local authorities, national and international development partners, and the fishing community. 

“The primary goal is to rehabilitate burned and degraded areas to ensure that the Tonle Sap Lake and its floodplains remain healthy freshwater ecosystems capable of sustaining the local population, fish, wildlife, and the national economy," explained Sony.

Despite these significant achievements, the Tonle Sap ecosystem faces numerous challenges. CI Cambodia’s officers told The Post about some of the challenges the restoration process faces. 

People from local communities around the Tonle Sap Lake plant more trees to preserve the flooded forests. Supplied

Illegal fishing and overfishing disrupt the aquatic balance, while deforestation, often exacerbated by wildfires and illegal encroachments, further threatens the region. 

Climate change alters rainfall patterns, increasing drought frequency and affecting seedling survival. 

Dams further up the Mekong River impact water flow and sediment distribution, crucial for maintaining the lake's ecosystem. Additionally, invasive plant species disrupt native flora and fauna, complicating conservation efforts.

“These challenges necessitate ongoing and adaptive management strategies,” explained the officers.

“CI Cambodia plans to continue supporting fishing communities around Tonle Sap through wildlife conservation, fisheries management and reforestation initiatives, aligned with the five-year strategic plan (2025-2030) of the Tonle Sap Conservation Program,” they added.

By 2030, the organisation aims to expand reforestation efforts across approximately 2,660 hectares, while monitoring the survival rates of forest seedlings and increasing community participation in conservation activities.

“As we celebrate July 9 Arbor Day, let us commit to safeguarding our natural resources, ending deforestation, and setting nature on a path to ecological recovery,” said Sony.  

He described the restoration of the Tonle Sap's flooded forest as a testament to what collaborative, sustained efforts can achieve in preserving the planet for future generations.