BETWEEN 2001 and 2014, the annual rate of forest loss in Cambodia increased by 14.4 percent, the highest rate in the world.
In that time, the Southeast Asian nation lost an estimated 1.44 million hectares—or 5,560 square miles—of forest, almost 10 percent of the country’s total area.
This shocking figure puts Cambodia far ahead of its Southeast Asian neighbors in terms of forest loss. Vietnam and Malaysia are next worst in the region, both with an annual increase of forest loss of 6.1 percent in the same period.
Cambodian rights group Licadho estimates that Cambodia lost 14.6 percent of its 41,300 square miles of forest from 2000-2013, and more than 2 percent in 2013 alone. Wherever you look, the figures are damning.
Satellite images published on NASA’s Earth Observatory website this week reveal the staggering extent of the damage caused by deforestation on a vast area on the border of Kampong Thom and Kampong Cham. The first, acquired in 2000, shows vast swaths of untouched forest in the area. The second image, from 2015, paints a very different picture. Much of the forest has been destroyed, replaced by roads, exposed soil, cropland and large-scale rubber plantations.
The primary cause of Cambodia’s alarming rate of deforestation is large land concessions granted to large-scale agricultural companies.
A damning report published by Forest Trends in 2015 revealed 2.6 million hectares (10,000 square miles) had been allocated for economic development by 2013 — 14 percent of the entire country. An estimated 80 percent of that land is within the boundaries of national parks or other protected forest areas.
Even more troubling, the study found that illegal deforestation continued to increase in this decade, “even after Cambodia began receiving money in 2011 in return for agreeing to follow international sustainable forest standards under the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program.”
The image below, also from NASA’s Earth Observatory website, clearly shows a significant upturn in deforestation from 2000-2014.
This rampant allocation economic land concessions (ELCs) has not only ravaged Cambodia’s forests, it has displaced tens of thousands of rural Cambodians and deprived them of their livelihoods.
Domestic and international pressure prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to place a moratorium on new concessions and a ‘comprehensive review’ of existing ones in May 2012. But by November 2013, the Cambodian government had approved 32 new land concessions, which it claimed had been in the pipeline since before the moratorium.
Not surprisingly, the granting of ELCs and the deforestation of Cambodia has been mired by allegations of corruption, violence and even murder.
In 2014, it emerged that tycoon and former prime ministerial adviser Try Pheap allegedly made more than US$220 million in unreported profits through illegal logging in the Cardamom mountains.
Activists and journalists who attempt to expose illegal activities have been intimidated, attacked and even killed.
In April 2012, activist Chut Wutty was shot dead by military police while escorting two journalists near a protected forest area near Koh Kong Province.
Wutty was particularly active in the Cardamom mountains and Prey Lang forest. Last year, a screening of a documentary about Wutty and illegal deforestation was banned by the Cambodian government.
Wutty’s death is just one of many that has been linked to illegal logging in Cambodia.
Nevertheless, the work of Wutty and other brave activists and journalists appears to have had some effect.
In May last year the Cambodian government granted protected status, including the “core area” of Prey Lang, to five protected forests.
This week, the Cambodian government signed a US$1.5 million deal with Conservation International and the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation to explore the possibility of a carbon trading project involving the Prey Lang protected area. Such a project, if successful, would see the Cambodian government earning revenue for preserving the forest, rather than tearing it down. This follows a US$2.6-million carbon credit deal with The Walt Disney Company secured last year for preserving part of the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.
While these developments are encouraging, activists and critics remain skeptical. The potential earnings from carbon deals pales in comparison to what can be made from land concessions and logging.
It is questionable whether Hun Sen will genuinely make good on his stated commitment to protect Cambodia’s forests.
The transfer last year of control of protected areas from the forestry ministry to the notoriously under-resourced environment ministry does not bode well and Hun Sen’s promises have often come to nothing in the past.
Maybe it will be different this time.