A growing number of reports show that large-scale deforestation continues in Cambodia’s protected forests, often with tacit endorsement from government officials—despite promises of conservation.
A series of reports this year show that protected forest areas across Cambodia are under increasing threat from land grabs and deforestation.
As Cambodians struggle with the economic impacts of COVID-19, journalists and advocates report that illegal logging and land development continues, from central Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest to the Cardamom Mountains and the vital Tonle Sap lake.
A new study published in August by researchers at University of Nevada found that forest-loss rates since 2011 for Cambodia and the Sekong–Sesan–Srepok river basin were twice as high as in the period from 2004 to 2011, and three times higher than forest-loss rates in the 1990s. From 2001 to 2018, Cambodia lost around a quarter of its forest cover, reports Global Forest Watch. The country saw more deforestation than any country in Asia during the period, driven in large part by agricultural plantations and logging for valuable timber like rosewood.
According to some advocates—such as the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN)—this forest loss has spiked during COVID-19, with officials allowing illegal logging and timber smuggling. “Now, with coronavirus, the destruction has increased massively,” said PCLN member and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ouch Leng.
In the early 2000s, the Cambodian government handed over more than 10% of the country’s land to agricultural firms, much of it for rubber plantations backed by foreign investment, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation. A portion of the country’s deforestation is also driven by environmental changes, including fires exacerbated by record low water levels in Tonle Sap lake and on the Mekong River.
Cardamom Mountains land acquisitions point towards corruption
The areas under threat include the Cardamom Mountains, a large protected rainforest area near the border of Thailand where local activists have historically struggled against hydropower development, among other issues.
According to Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the Cardamom range supports about half of Cambodia’s birds, amphibians and reptiles and is a vital habitat for endangered mammals, including Asian elephants, Indian civets, sun bears, Asiatic black bears, clouded leopards, gaur and dhole.
The Cardamom Mountains are ostensibly protected by four national parks and four wildlife conservation areas but, as with a number of forests in Cambodia, these protections appear to mean less and less every year.
Last month, observers called on the governor of Kampong Speu province to stop an ongoing illegal land grab in Cardamom Mountain National Park. Chea Hean, director of domestic NGO Anti-Corruption, Natural Resource Protection and Civil Rights Protection (ACNCIPO), alleged that government advisor Yoeun Yoeut had used forged official documents to push the land acquisition. Yoeut himself reportedly owns 1,500 hectares in the area in question, Tasal commune.
The local commune chief has expressed support for ACNCIPO’s attempts to reverse the land grab. “I did not sign to acknowledge or grant permission to anyone regarding the land because it is state land,” he said. “There is a royal decree to protect it and I’ve also informed local people to not encroach on it, but some would not listen to the authorities.”
In the Cardamoms, the recent wave of threats to the area date back to the construction of an expressway in 2002 connecting eastern Thailand to Cambodia’s commercial hubs, according to research by Mongabay. The highway itself was built through 155 kilometers of rainforest, but it also brought along a spree of destructive land grabs and speculation, as well as forest fires.
Though the government established protective areas in the Cardamoms in 2016 following years of calls for conservation from community advocates, these measures may not be effective at preventing land grabs. New rhetoric from the Hun Sen government about securing land titles for marginalized communities may pose a further threat to conservation areas.
According to Marcus Hardtke, a civil society expert on forests in Cambodia, distributing new land titles could be not only a ploy to garner political favor but also a move to cater to private speculators.
“Poor people are hired as a front to hide business interests,” Hardtke told Mongabay, “but ultimately the land ends up in the hands of the organizers. Many of these land grabs are then later legalized in ‘compromises.’ In addition, the protected area regulations are quite often changed, creating loopholes and opportunity for fraud. Members of the military are also known for organized forest land grabbing, especially in protected areas.”
Cambodia’s government continues to flounder on forest protection
For those who do choose to speak out about conservation, the Cambodian government has done little to protect them from harassment and, in some cases, violence. The risks are apparent from the well-known case of Chut Wutty, a forest defender murdered by military police in 2012. He was working with journalists in the Cardamoms when he was shot.
Cambodia’s government looked poised to address some of its conservation challenges back in 2015, when the Ministry of Environment drafted a new Environment and Natural Resources Code. Though the bill wasn’t perfect, NGOs in the country welcomed it and observers expected the measure to pass. But five years later, the code still hasn’t been adopted and many environmental advocates say local communities and experts are now shut out of the process behind the law.
In contrast to its failures however, the government is now reportedly moving ahead with a process to nominate sites in the country for UNESCO World Natural Heritage Status. Cambodia already has three UNESCO cultural sites, including Angkor Wat, but has now proposed to nominate Tbeng Meanchey, the Cardamom Mountains and Tonle Sap as natural heritage areas. The move may bring still more uncomfortable international attention to Cambodia’s deforestation crisis.