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Despite Growing Body of Evidence, Officials Reject Deforestation Claims

The forest burns near Prey Long, Cambodia in this undated handout photo.
The forest burns near Prey Long, Cambodia in this undated handout photo.

Most recently, the Washington-based World Resource Institute said that Cambodia was among the world’s hotspots for tree cover loss.

Cambodian officials have defended the government’s record on the forestry sector, despite the publication this year of several substantive reports alleging that deforestation is accelerating due to policy failures.

A raft of independent reports have piled on criticism of the government’s policy of granting economic land concessions, which critics say has driven massive forest loss, while also leading to the forced evictions of hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

Most recently, the Washington-based World Resource Institute said that Cambodia was among the world’s hotspots for tree cover loss. The group’s report, based on data from U.S. government satellites, placed the blame on the proliferation of rubber plantations, a trend that has transformed much of northeastern Cambodia from old-growth forests teeming with wildlife to a landscape of endless rubber trees in just a few years.

“Since 2001, tree cover loss in Cambodia accelerated faster than any other countries in the world,” WRI said in a statement. “Although Cambodia’s tree cover loss peaked in 2010, it remains extremely high.”

But the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen takes a different view. The Forestry Ministry’s spokesman Eang Sophalleth—who is also an aide to the prime minister—told VOA Khmer that the government had been stepping up its activities to protect forests, launching crackdowns against illegal loggers.

However, at least four reports have been published by local and international nongovernmental organizations so far this year criticizing the government’s handling of the country’s forests.

“Those reports are not comprehensive,” Sophalleth said. “With no comprehensive analysis, the reports failed to document the realities on the ground.”

The reports use a range of sources, from satellite imagery to interviews with local people, and together build a picture of a government not only failing to prevent deforestation, but actively worsening it with its policies.

The government started granting economic land concessions in 2005, with the stated aim of developing rural areas through large-scale agro-industrial plantations that would create jobs and produce goods for export. Many concessions were granted in or nearby virgin forests, or even within designated protected areas, leading to logging on a large scale.

In February, the outspoken environmental group Global Witness released its report “The Cost of Luxury,” detailing the deforestation caused by the economic land concession scheme and ongoing smuggling of timber across the border with Vietnam to the timber market there, and on to China, where there is massive demand for luxury tree species.

In July, U.S.-based Forest Trends mapped and described “the geography of forest land allocations in relation to the major forest formations, land concessions, protected areas, the national forest estate, and the reported concession ownership.”

A month later, local civil society group NGO Forum released another report, an investigative study on the “Destruction of State Forests and Protected Areas” by concession-holding companies linked to Cambodia’s ruling elite, including prominent tycoons Try Pheap and An Mardy.

In response, Sophalleth echoed previous comments by the prime minister, insisting that once deforested land is replanted with rubber trees, it can once again be considered as forest cover. Environmentalists flatly reject this idea, insisting that the monoculture of rubber plantations is not comparable to the rich biodiversity of natural forests.

“They [the reports] merely focus on the forest [loss] by ignoring the economic benefits drawn from the rubber replantation, which government is backing, and its role as new forest covers,” Sophalleth added.

Critics point out that the concessions policy has led to often-violent evictions and increased landlessness among the rural poor.

And the government itself appears to have recognized problems with the economic land concessions policy. An inter-ministerial commission in July decided to decrease the maximum concession period from 99 years to 50 years, after finding that some concession holders were proceeding too slowly, and others had not moved forward at all with developing concession land.

Sophalleth insisted it was too early to judge the “success or failure” of the government’s policies, as the economic benefits of plantations had yet to be felt.

For many, however, the verdict is already in.

“Our inactive government has gravely failed in its policy on forest protection,” said Seng Sok Heng, spokesman for the prize-winning community environmentalist group the Prey Lang Community Network.

The findings of the reports this year confirm the findings of the Prey Land Community Network, which has for years monitored the deforestation resulting from government policies in one of the world’s last remaining lowland old-growth forests, he said.

NGO Forum’s executive director Tek Vannara said the report produced by his organization, which focus on forestry management in northeast Cambodia, was conducted independently and scientifically.

“I only hope our report and others pave the way for the government to intervene and address the problem on the ground with the malpractice of some economic land concessions,” Vannara said.

The Environment Ministry’s chief of cabinet, Srun Darith, who supervised the ministry’s audit of 113 concessions in recent months, declined to blame concession-holding companies for forest loss in Cambodia.

He said companies were entitled to log any timber found inside their concessions, but were also responsible for making sure that surrounding areas are not also logged, which has been a complaint of anti-logging activists. “The companies granted licenses are responsible for the logging both inside and surrounding area of their concessional lands,” Darith said.

He said that concessions would improve job opportunities for local people, adding that one of the main purposes of the policy was to to shift people from traditional ways of living, including hunting in the forests, to salaried labor on plantations.

He insisted that each concession is granted after careful consideration in the hope of finding a “balance” between the impacts of forest loss and the benefits of economic development both to locals and to the country as a while.

Darith declined to immediately evaluate whether such a balance had been found so far, however.