Friday, September 12, 2008

Can Angkor be saved?

Can Angkor be saved?

France Bequette

BENEATH the aircraft's wing at sunset, the broad marshy moat dotted with white egrets, the three rectangles of covered galleries, the terraces and the five high, sculpted towers of Angkor Wat are all tinged pink. We are privileged to be flying over the best-known temple of the unique complex of monuments that is Angkor--in old Khmer, the name means "the city" or "the capital". Here, on a plain 200 square kilometres in extent in north-eastern Cambodia, between the Kulen plateau and the Tonle Sap ("Great Lake"), a dozen Khmer rulers of the ninth to the twelfth centuries built seven capitals containing many temples. Some are hidden in the jungle, where they are even more inaccessible because of the presence of the Khmer Rouge, who after holding power from 1975 to 1978 and killing upwards of a million Cambodians, took refuge in this region near the Thai border. The temples are all that now remains of the ancient capitals, for only the gods had the right to stone or brick buildings. The palaces and dwellings were built of wood, and they have since disappeared without trace.


Nature, not human wrath, has destroyed these marvellously rich monuments. The heat and humidity of the tropical climate encouraged the unbridled growth of kapok and "strangler fig" trees, popularly associated with rains because their roots destroy monuments.

Today the principal temples have been freed of the vegetation that held them in its grip. Only the Ta Prohm temple has deliberately been left in the midst of the thickets in which the French missionary Charles Bouillevaux and, later, the naturalist Henri Mouhot found it in the mid-nineteenth century. Since 1898, the year in which the French Far Eastern School (the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, or EFEO) was founded, a steady stream of archaeologists have worked on the site. They patiently cleared away the undergrowth, dismantled and then reassembled the monuments, and in 1908 created the "Conservation d'Angkor" to which the most threatened statues were taken.

According to Bernard Philippe Groslier of the EFEO, a former curator of the site, "There is hardly anything in the world comparable to the Angkor complex in terms of the number, size and perfection of its buildings." But this masterpiece is in grave danger, and in 1989 the four main Cambodian political parties asked UNESCO to assume the coordination of international activities for the preservation of the monuments of Angkor. In December 1992 Angkor was placed on the World Heritage List.

In view of the scale of the conservation problems involved, UNESCO'S World Heritage Committee placed a number of conditions on Angkor's inclusion on the List, insisting that a legal framework for conservation work and a management plan should be drawn up, and that an authority should be established with the resources to manage the entire Angkor area. UNESCO'S first task was to help the government to set up a Cambodian Authority for the Protection of the National Heritage, which was formally approved in February 1993. UNESCO has also worked with the Cambodian government and a group of international experts on a Zoning and Environmental Management Plan (ZEMP) for the authorities, donors and local people as well as visitors. This comprehensive document takes into account Angkor's assets as well as the dangers threatening the site.

The archaeological treasures are particularly at risk from lichens, microscopic algae and bacteria that proliferate in the guano of the many bats living in the ruins. The ZEMP also cites the destructive effects of monsoon rains, the vegetation, and variations in the underground aquifer that influence the stability of the buildings. Other factors include uncontrolled agricultural development after deforestation, the influx of thousands of tourists and the construction of hotels to replace existing facilities that are not up to international standards. The region badly needs revenue from tourism, but there is also a risk that it may suffer from it. Angkor is a "new" destination that travel agencies are now adding to a circuit that includes Thailand, Laos and Viet Nam.

Statistics show that in 1992 35,000 tourists visited Siem Reap, the base for excursions to the temples. If forecasts turn out to be accurate, between 300,000 and 700,000 foreigners and between 100,000 and 500,000 Cambodians will visit Angkor in the next five years. The figures represent a sizeable market, and fourteen big hotel chains are already hoping for a share of it. There is growing concern since two hotels had been built previously beside the moat of Angkor War with little regard for the site. (They were subsequently burned down by the Khmer Rouge). Is it only a matter of time before there are pleasure boats, theme parks and neon signs?

To avoid this kind of desecration while permitting sustainable development of the region, the ZEMP suggests dividing the site into zones. The Angkor Parks, comprising five of the ancient capitals including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Preah Khan, would be given maximum protection. They would be located within an Angkor Cultural Reserve. On the other hand there would be no restrictions on new residents coming to join the 350,000 people already living in the area, nor on their techniques of farming or forest management.


Much remains to be done for the management of water resources before Angkor can reclaim the reputation it once had as a "hydraulic capital". The prosperity of the early Angkor empires was closely linked to irrigation. A network of dykes and canals served to control flooding and to provide water in the dry season from huge reservoirs called "barays", all of which are now abandoned with the exception of the Western Baray, which has been restored in this century. The temple moats were both sacred boundaries and sources of water and of food in the form of fish and lotus, whose fruits contain a mealy substance from which bread can be made. Now, however, they have silted up and are clogged with vegetation.

Other, more immediate dangers also threaten the Angkor region. There are estimated to be twelve million mines in northern Cambodia. A French company, COFRAS, which has trained Cambodian mine disposal squads, has been attempting to clear the eight minefields identified at Angkor. Three hundred and sixty mines have already been removed. The only way one can reach the temple of Ta Nei and the eastern entrance to Angkor Thorn--the so-called Gate of Death--is by following a mine disposal squad. Countless people--adults and children--have been killed by the mines or have lost limbs. In addition, armed and trained Khmer Rouges are operating in the vicinity, terrorizing the local population by sporadic raiding.

In these circumstances, it is very difficult to prevent the looting of sculptures that every year causes the sanctuaries to deteriorate further. The thieves prize loose with chisels the wonderful faces of the heavenly dancers known as apsaras, cut the heads off statues, and in some cases remove the statues wholesale, even those weighing more than a ton. The protests of the Cambodian government, of UNESCO and of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) have no effect on the traffickers, who know where they can get vast sums of money for the statues.

The task of coordinating international aid that the Cambodian government has entrusted to UNESCO is a difficult one. Only one archaeological excavation is currently under way, and that is the EFEO's investigation of the Terrace of the Leper King. Without co-ordination and political determination to protect the site, Angkor could well fall into the hands of unscrupulous businessmen seeking quick profits from the curiosity of tourists and the poverty of the local population.

Angkor has a special place in the memory of humanity. Let us hope that the international community will wake up to the fact soon enough to take the urgent action that is needed to save, protect and rationally develop this irreplaceable treasure.

FRANCE BEQUETTE is a Franco-American journalist specializing in environmental questions. Since 1985 she has been associated with the WANAD-UNESCO training programme for African news-agency journalists.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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