at a glance
“Ramsar Site 999 – The Flooded Forests of Northern Cambodia”, panoramas by Paul Stewart at the FCC Phnom Penh. Through May 31.
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Mouth To Source
For all their magnificence, the flooded forests of northern Cambodia remain virtually unknown.
Referred to as Ramsar Site 999, the internationally recognized wetlands cover 14,600 hectares along the northern stretches of Cambodia’s Mekong River.
The forests are the subject of an exhibition by Paul Stewart at The FCC Phnom Penh, titled “Ramsar Site 999 – The Flooded Forests of Northern Cambodia.” In gorgeous blue monotone panoramas, Stewart captures the area’s gnarled, often surreal, riverscapes.
The exhibit comprises 23 oversized panoramic prints; each one measures 1 meter wide by a half meter tall. “Ramsar Site 999” remains on display through May.
Ramsar is short for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, signed in 1971 in Ransar, Iran. The convention aims to ensure the proper use of the wetlands through national action and international cooperation.
Stewart first encountered the wetlands a few years ago during a boat trip to the Laos border.
“I thought, ‘What a totally awesome place.’ Why have I not seen any pictures of it?” Stewart recalls.
The answer: There weren’t any. Until only recently geography and history have conspired to keep the flooded forests isolated from the world. Even today few tourists visit the area. And before 1999, the year Cambodia and Ramsar listed the site, safety concerns kept outsiders away at a time when the Khmer Rouge’s presence could still be felt in Cambodia.
But earlier this year, Stewart finally got a chance to do what others had not. He made trips to the region in January and March and photographed the site’s dry-season vistas.
“The boat trip is great because these trees are just so attractive, but you never stop because it’s business rather than pleasure,” Stewart says. “I decided I’d like to get off the boat this time.”
Ramsar estimates that about 10,000 people depend on the site’s ecosystems.
“For the local communities, the area is extremely important as a fishing ground, especially in the dry season,” Ramsar Secretariat Dwight Peck says. “The flooded forest provides refuge for approximately 100 species of fish, with some 50 species being of socio-economic importance.”
“The site is also important for providing a water transportation system, and for contributing to the productivity of the areas in the downstream part of the Mekong by providing a supply of nutrient rich detritus,” Peck says.
The area also supports rare marine life, including the Mekong Giant Catfish and the Irrawaddy dolphin.
Two years ago the UN and private interests identified the site as one of the northern Mekong’s most under-exploited natural resources.
Under the Mekong Discovery Trail initiative, a plan was made to develop the infrastructure that would support community tourism in the area. These days, the people, the food and the overall capacity are all in place. The only thing missing are the visitors.
“Last year O’Svay received 32 tourists,” Stewart says of the area’s primary destination. “And most of them stayed only one night.”
For everything that Mekong Discovery Trail has accomplished, the site is still a secret, Stewart says, and marketing is what the community needs most.
Born in Carlisle, in North West England, in 1963, Stewart spent years working for the High Street travel industry in London. In the early 1990s, he worked for MyTravel, a conglomerate of 26 travel agencies. MyTravel flew him around the world to take pictures of hotels and tourist spots.
“It was a machine,” Stewart recalls. “I was on a plane for two and a half years.”
The job paid well, but did little to satisfy Stewart’s independent streak.
“There’s no way you can do proper, serious work,” he says.
Always fascinated with waterways, Stewart arrived in Cambodia in 1994 for a freelance shoot of the Tonle Sap. The project never amounted to much, but it got Stewart hooked on the country. Eventually, he settled down permanently in 2002.
His fascination with water continues, and Cambodia offers plenty to keep him busy. For now it’s the Ramsar project and the exhibit at the The FCC. Stewart wants more people to know about Cambodia’s flooded forests and the communities who inhabit them.
“It’s all marketing and publicity for the community up there,” he says. “They need it.”