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How Much Forest Remains? Experts at Odds

The Ministry of Agriculture’s forestry administration claims that Cambodia is to maintain 60 percent forest coverage by 2015, but international observers say this claim ignores massive logging operations that have already consumed vast areas of forest.

London-based Global Witness, who has been closely investigated natural resource exploitation in Cambodia for the last 15 years, said that illegal logging continues, even as more evidence of non-transparent mining emerges.

The group said that satellite data used to make the forest coverage claims can be misleading without on-the-ground verification.

“What this does, it just takes pictures and counts anything that’s green as forest,” said Eleanor Nichol, a member of Global Witness. “We know from our experience from Cambodia that is just not the case. You have prime forest, and you have things such as degraded forest and plantations. What satellite imagery does is it counts all the green and, therefore, counts it all as forest. It doesn’t have any kind of ground verification to look at forest quality and whether or not it has been stripped of its ecological value or its commercial value.”

Not everyone agrees with Global Witness’s concerns. Glen Matlack, a professor at Ohio University’s department of environmental and plant biology, said satellite imagery is not very good at distinguishing different types of plant species, but it is very good at distinguishing between crops and forest or forest and urban areas, or primary forests and secondary forests.

“I think that you can pick up in differences in texture and reflectents between vegetation types as different as primary forests, secondary forests, plantations and bamboo,” he said. “I have not seen the area, the images of the area myself. But from what I know about remote sensing, I am skeptical about the objection.”

Sir Ra Dep, deputy director of forestry administration, told VOA Khmer by phone that the agency has distributed more than 6 million seedlings in the past five years to communities in provinces nationwide.

Data produced by satellite has an error of about 1 percent, he said, and he chastised Global Witness for making claims without consulting with local experts and authorities.

“I think, after obtaining data from satellites, the forestry administration goes to the field to verify it,” he said. “Sometimes it is cloudy and the image is not clear, so we go to the field to collect data.”

While the government claims that millions of trees have been replanted and that it is committed to protecting its forests, observers say logging activities are still carried out.

Sam Sen, a villager in Siem Reap province who lives in an area once teeming with fine wood forest, said he has seen logging activities committed by a number of licensed companies.

He said one of the logging areas is at Kulen mountain, where forest has been cleared for cultivation. Prey Sa-At, or Beautiful Forest, which once stretched from Banteay Srey to Along Veng, has been cleared.

“All is cleared. No fine wood is left. There is rarely a tree with diameter of 0.5 meters,” he said. “Of course I see tree replanting, but they plant useless trees to replace the fine wood that they have cut.”

Sir Ra Dep said that on top of the tree seedlings, the forestry administration has tree plantations in many provinces that have planted thousands of hectares for trees.

Still, Global Witness warned that with reports of illegal logging and mining continuing, there is little reason to believe claims of heavy forest cover, especially considering a UN Food and Agricultural Organization report that found Cambodia had lost 29 percent of its primary forest between 2000 and 2005.