Environmentalists Urge the Government to Better Protect Cambodian Forests

Photo shows representatives of twenty-two civil society organizations who filed a petition asking two ministries to maintain their pledge on guaranteeing a 60 percent forest cover. Photo from CYN

Twenty-two civil society organizations filed a petition asking two ministries to maintain their pledge on guaranteeing a 60 percent forest cover

PHNOM PENH – Environmentalists have filed a petition to the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, requesting the government to live up to its pledge to combat forest crime and target a forest cover of 60 percent of the national territory by 2030, while the current forest cover stands below 50 percent.

The 22 civil society organizations who signed the petition on March 29 requested that the government implements its commitment and the Cambodian law, prevents natural resource crimes and corruption and allows the community and civil society organizations to participate in the efforts to preserve the forest. The petition also calls on the government to monitor the contracts and licenses of land concession companies and to investigate the smuggling of 211 tons of timber found by the Hong Kong Customs Authority.

Through its Rectangular Strategy [a governmental strategy to build the Cambodia Vision 2050], its COP21 commitments, and the National Forest Program 2010-2029, the Cambodian government always recalls its will to maintain a 60 percent forest cover in the Kingdom, said Heng Kimhong, head of research and advocacy at the Cambodia Youth Network (CYN).

But in the last two decades, the forest cover has been significantly damaged while forest crimes are seen to be committed every day, he said.

“It is worrying that we have the pledge but the measure is not yet effective and taken seriously,” he said.

Environment Ministry Spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said that those environmental activists are only political activists who take refuge under the label of environment and natural resources.

They should take practical activities to participate in reforestation, and help find solutions to change the lives of people, as the ministry has been working on to improve the livelihoods of people living around protected areas so that they will stop relying entirely on natural resources, he said.

“They should take practical action, get involved with the ministry and tell their donors to take action with the Royal Government to protect and conserve natural resources. They should avoid just showing the love towards natural resources on the outer shell,” said Pheaktra.

The Royal Government's strategic goal is to strike a balance between development and preservation, as stated in the Phase IV of the government’s Rectangular Strategy, issued in 2018.

The goal is to promote the development of the agriculture, industry, and tourism sectors, strengthen the management of mineral resources, ensure the sustainability of forest and fisheries resources, as well as ecological systems, and to protect and develop national cultural heritage.

“As a result, forest cover has been maintained at around 60% of the country land area; more than 410,000 hectares of economic land concessions have been withdrawn for implementing the social land concession program, or donation, or reforestation,” the strategy reads.

According to a Ministry of Environment report issued in 2021, Cambodia has so far maintained 46.86 percent—which amounts to 8.5 million hectares—of forest cover across the country, down from 61.75 percent in 2002.

From these 46.86 percent, 41 percent are under the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, which guarantees their protection and conservation, Pheaktra said.

As part of its carbon-reduction efforts, the government agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement to play an active role in forest protection and to preserve up to 60 percent of forest cover across the country by 2030.

Keeping the local communities away

Kimhong from CYN said the decrease in forest cover is due to a lack of the government’s real commitment to protect them. But it also comes from the restricted access to protected areas that local and indigenous communities now face, he added. Both reasons lead to an increase in forest crimes.

“There is no positive sign from the government in protecting the forest cover,” he said. “When there is no forest, there is no fresh air. So, promoting a carbon-reduction effort is also challenging.”

Hoeun Sopheap, a community representative from the Prey Lang Community Network, said that the government cannot achieve its pledge to maintain 60 percent of forest cover by 2030 because timber is being illegally logged daily, while the community is restricted from patrolling and taking part in the protection of the forest.

“We are prohibited from going to the forest while the information about the situation cannot be widely disseminated,” he said.

Spokesperson Neth Pheaktra, however, said in the long-term carbon-neutral development strategy by 2050, Cambodia is highly committed to the forestry and other land-use sectors, including halving the rate of deforestation by 2030 and ending deforestation and loss of forests by 2045.

“At the same time, to achieve the goal of increasing the Cambodian National Forest Project, we will promote tree planting, improve forest management and reforestation, agriculture and commercial plantations, as well as fully implement the REDD + investment plan by 2050,” he said.

Pheaktra went on to say that with a better protection and conservation, Cambodia has reached the point of selling carbon credits in the international voluntary market to raise funds to strengthen the management, conservation, and development of local communities.

“Cambodia is optimistic that it will receive more funding from the sale of carbon credits under the slogan of sustaining timber to generate revenue through the sale of carbon credits and eco-tourism,” he said.

“The laws exist, but the implementation is zero”

Since the 1970s, Cambodia has had some of the greatest rates of deforestation, with a considerable acceleration in the last decade, according to Global Forest Watch. The country’s protected regions have been seriously harmed, despite the fact that they are intended to be protected under the Cambodian law.

The illegal harvesting and smuggling of timber in Cambodia increased dramatically in the 1990s, continuing a trend that had begun in the late 1960s. Between 1973 and 1993, Cambodia lost about 0.5 percent of its forest cover per year, says Global Forest Watch.

Commercial logging, as well as 30 years of civil conflict and governmental instability, are to be blamed for such losses. There was also a shift of cultivations in the agricultural sector, as well as harvesting of fuelwood and wood for charcoal manufacturing.

In 2008, the Cambodian government enacted the Natural Protected Areas Law, which particularly outlawed tree felling and wood harvesting. The government was also supposed to assist and maintain the protected areas against unsustainable encroachment by corporations and private persons.

Although Cambodia enables its people to establish their plantations—mostly teak or rubber—, those plantations are under the jurisdiction of the Forestry Administration which coordinates and ensures that all timber is legal and that those who have the right to stamp on the logged timers are only from the Forestry Administration, Kimhong said.

“Cambodia does not have the policy to export timber with a diameter of 125 cm, which is considered non-exportable timber. Precious and rare wood is also prohibited,” he said.

Hoeun Sopheap from the Prey Lang Community Network said that the community has been trying to request and advocate with the Ministry of Environment for the rights and freedom to protect the nation’s forest as stated in law, but no responses have been made.

“The laws exist, but the implementation is zero,” he said. “The forest is being destroyed and encroached upon every day. Those who are trying to protect the forest are punished. We have seen continuous crimes occurring in the forest areas.”

Instead, environmental activists frequently put their lives on the line to safeguard Cambodia's forests, he said.

While investigating forest crimes in Koh Kong province in May 2012, Chut Wutty, one of Prey Lang's most notable environmentalists, was shot dead by military police, who was working hand to hand with a company logging timber illegally.

Eight years later, in central Cambodia, another well-known environmental defender, Ouch Leng, was arrested and incarcerated, along with PLCN members Srey Thei and Khem Soky and forest investigator Man Mat, while investigating claims of unlawful logging in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.

On June 21, 2021, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged four activists with plotting to overthrow the government. These included exiled leader Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, Sun Ratha, Ly Chandaravuth, and Yim Leanghy from the environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, which was dissolved and stripped of NGO status by the Ministry of Interior in 2017.

Kimhong of CYN added the Environment Ministry said that forests have been divided into several type of zones, such as core areas, community areas or sustainable areas. But until now there are no specific zones where the community is restricted to enter.

“Only with transparency in the information distribution, the crime can be prevented. I’m concerned about corruption,” he said.

However, he is optimistic that the local community, though they are not the authorities, will be encouraged to take part in monitoring the forest and inform about the crime freely.

Being more pessimistic, Global Watch Forest warns: “Corruption appears to guarantee that the illicit export trade will continue for the foreseeable future.”

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