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Forum Seeks Sustainable Solutions to Environmental Problems Threatening Cambodian World Heritage Site

September 9, 2008

LOS ANGELES—From the ninth to the 15th centuries, Angkor became one of the largest preindustrial cities in the world.  Located in the dense forests of Cambodia, it sprawled 400 square kilometers, serving as the capital of the Khmer Empire, which extended over many parts of today’s Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Over the centuries, the site endured a great deal, including the depletion of its water supply, abandonment by its residents, the constant onslaught of the lush forests that threatened to consume it, and beginning in the 1970s, the occupation of the Khmer Rouge, who used it as a fortress.  Today the countless ruins that remain constitute “one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia,” according to the UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, which inscribed Angkor on the World Heritage List in 1992.

Angkor is an irresistible lure to more than two million tourists annually, who stay nearby in the rapidly growing city of Siem Reap.  They represent a new threat—not only when they visit the fragile monuments and grounds, but also when they go back to the hotel, take a dip in the pool, and grab a bite to eat.  The rapid development of Siem Reap, which acts as the gateway to Angkor, is lowering the water table and threatening the foundations of the ruins, according to a warning from UNESCO.

This fall, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) will help to convene 50 international and local experts in a roundtable forum to address the challenges of urban development in Siem Reap.  Organized in collaboration with the Pacific Rim Council on Urban Development (PRCUD), the Center for Khmer Studies (CKS), and the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA), Siem Reap: Urban Development in the Shadow of Angkor will address the impact of the intensifying urbanization of Siem Reap on the Angkor region’s cultural heritage.

“The increasing pressure on Angkor has drawn concern from many countries.  To the world heritage community, Angkor is comparable to Egypt’s pyramids in its significance.  This is a pivotal meeting of local and international experts, and we hope it will be an effective catalyst for positive urban development,” says Jeff Cody, a senior project specialist at the GCI, who is coordinating the forum along with Dr. Philippe Peycam, Director of the Center for Khmer Studies; Prof. Eric Heikkila, Executive Secretary of the Pacific Rim Council on Urban Development; and Mr. Uk Someth, APSARA’s Deputy General Director for Urban Planning and Development.

One of the original aspects of the forum is its model of cooperation, involving a Cambodian governmental institution (APSARA), and three international organizations (the GCI, CKS and PRCUD), which represent scholars, universities, and professionals from various disciplines and nationalities.  The organizers hope that by convening people with expertise in a variety of disciplines and perspectives—from economists and architects to planners and monks—the roundtable will generate ideas on how to plan for sustainable tourism and development in the area so that the conservation of Angkor as a priceless cultural resource will be assured.

The issues to be addressed at the forum will extend beyond the site itself to the urban development surrounding it.  “Conservation is complicated enough—dealing with natural agents of deterioration—without adding other challenges posed by development and urban planning,” Cody says.  “With burgeoning economic development and the rise of global tourism, we’ve reached the stage where there are tremendous concerns about the effects of these trends on cultural heritage, both at Siem Reap and elsewhere in the region.”

Participants will begin their immersion in the issues confronting Siem Reap before they leave home, with extensive briefing documents distributed weeks before the conference.  They arrive in Siem Reap for a day of field visits, and then convene around a large table where they will begin discussions which will be structured around five sessions, each of which will cohere around a central question. An audience of approximately 100 observers will view the proceedings.

Discussion moderators include Dr. Keiko Miura, lecturer, School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan; Charles Goldblum, professor of urban planning, Institut Francais d’Urbanisme, Universite de Paris VIII, Champs-sur-Marne, France; Mr. Eugenio Yunis, director of programme and coordination, World Tourism Organization, Madrid, Spain; Mr. Christian Delvoie, director, Sustainable Development Department, East Asia and the Pacific, the World Bank, Washington, D.C.; and  Mr. Cornelius Dijkgraaf, principal of the non-governmental organization Urban Solutions, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

If successful, Cody hopes the forum will serve as a model for similar efforts.  “What happens in Angkor has an impact on other sites because it’s so important,” he says. “Using a roundtable forum, we hope to test methods and techniques of engaging many constituencies, from local to global. We also hope that what we learn from the discussions can have ramifications elsewhere.”

Siem Reap: Urban Development in the Shadow of Angkor will take place October 26–29, 2008, in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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Melissa Abraham
Getty Communications

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