Environmental watchdogs say they are concerned Cambodia could be jeopardizing wildlife habitat with government forestry concessions and the illegal trade of timber and wildlife.
Nicholas Sorenson, a special projects director for the Wildlife Alliance, based in Washington, gave a video demonstration recently showing wild animals under the protection of the group in Cambodia.
As the country emerged from the Khmer Rouge and the decades of civil war that followed, wildlife and forests were descended upon, he told VOA Khmer in an interview.
“Wildlife was hunted, tigers were hunted, trees were cut down,” he said. “And you know, corruption ultimately is the No. 1 thing to blame.”
A long-awaited anti-corruption law would help wildlife while enabling the country to develop and restore the natural environment.
Cambodian officials have repeatedly vowed to crackdown on illegal logging and the wildlife trade, but the government has failed to a pass corruption legislation, citing a need to first past a penal code.
Still, Prime Minister Hun Sen will not tolerate the trafficking of illegal wildlife or timber, said Ngoun Nhel, first vice president of the National Assembly, in a phone interview.
“The government has ordered the prevention of anyone exporting wild animals,” he said. “It is an order to the Ministry of Environment and to the authorities involved with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to protect wildlife.”
Asia is a hotspot for the global wildlife trade, which leads to illegal arms and drug smuggling, according to Wildlife Alliance and Interpol, with trade valued between $6 billion and $20 billion per year.
Cambodia was roundly criticized in recent years for allowing vast tracts of forest to be illegally logged, and the environmental monitor Global Witness claims much of the revenue from the trade goes into the pocket of officials in the highest reaches of government and business.
Sorenson said he himself witnessed the natural destruction of Cambodia’s wilds by large foreign companies on a recent trip to Cambodia.
“If you look at Chinese involvement, by building hydroelectric dams, if you look at coal-fired power plants, there are large scale industrial projects,” he said.
Companies from Vietnam, Thailand and China were all involved harmful projects, he said.
“I saw that a Singaporean company dredged sand in the Cardamom Mountains even after a it was banned,” he said. “I witnessed that.”
Meanwhile, the government has a forest concession policy that grants thousands of hectares of land to private companies for investment in long-term industries. Foreign investors sign 99-year leases for up to 10,000 hectares of land.
If the forests are depleted, monitors warn, wildlife and the environment will suffer. Rain will decrease, along with natural spaces and ecosystems, which in turn could damage healthy living for people.
Following the Wildlife Alliance video presentation in Washington, Emily Kennedy, a master’s student of environmental policy at American University, said Cambodia was well known for supplying wildlife to Thai markets.
“I know in Thailand they got rid of most of their wildlife, so now they are going to Vietnam or Cambodia to get it,” she said.
Nadia Miller, a coordinator for Wildlife Alliance, said many donors were worried about the wildlife and timber trades.
“I think for the most part they are concerned about the degradation of the environment,” she said. The loss of wildlife and its habitat “is very powerful to people and very compelling,” she said.
Wildlife Alliance recommended that the government produce wildlife preservation policies that raise awareness to local people about its importance, while training officials and providing monitoring equipment.
Meanwhile, the use of animal products for medicine, body powder, food and furniture should be stopped immediately, environmental groups say.