Fallen Forests

By: Charlie Lancaster - Posted on: May 17, 2011 | Cambodia

Corporate greed and weak government have left Cambodia’s protected areas defenceless

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Chow Chart sat staring vacantly. Lost for words, he occasionally shook his head. The roar of heavy machinery in the distance broke the silence. When another truck laden with timber trembled by, he got up and walked away.

The 56-year-old and his family have been living in, near and on Preah Vihear Protected Forest for generations, but it seems the only people who will reap the benefits of their traditional, sustainable lifestyle are the country’s elite and foreign investors, who are converting swaths of protected forest into plantations.

Since January, the commercial leasing of environmental conservation areas has surged: more than 2,400 square kilometres in protected areas have been privatised. By May, 5.7% of the land in the country’s 23 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries had been put in private hands, The Cambodia Daily reported in July. The Ministry of Environment has defended the recent bonanza of concession approvals in conservation areas by arguing that only degraded forest areas would be affected and that they are necessary for economic development and job creation.

While most conservationists acknowledge that logging and economic activity, if conducted within a carefully sanctioned system, are required to pursue economic growth, they question the need for this in national parks.

“Large-scale monoculture plantations have no place in protected areas,” said Marcus Hardtke, a forest crime monitor who has worked in Cambodia for the past ten years. “Plantations are not forests. Protected areas are about maintaining natural ecosystems.” The government description of land being sold off as ‘degraded’, he pointed out, is “one of the oldest tricks in the book in the region”, often used to justify the cutting of tens of thousands of hectares of high-value timber in primary forests.

“It is a way to circumvent laws protecting tall-standing forests from short-sighted, rapid conversion. Declaring an area ‘degraded’ also provides a convenient cover for timber theft and royalty evasion,” Hardtke said. Vietnam is the main destination for Cambodian timber, where Rosewood can fetch prices as high as $5,000 per cubic metre. Representatives from Try Pheap Import Export Co Ltd offered to pay community leaders $2.50 for every felled resin tree in their concession within Boeung Per Wildlife Sanctuary, as reported in The Phnom Penh Post last month. On the international market, resin tree wood can be worth upwards of $180 per cubic metre. When the villagers refused the offer, they were denied further meetings with the company.

“In some instances, companies obtaining approval for concessions have no expertise or real interest in agro-industry,” said one conservationist, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. In June, some concessions were halted because they had cut timber but failed to plant any crops. To date, no one has been prosecuted.

“This land is not degraded but primary forest,” said Ang Cheatlom, executive director of Ponlok Khmer, a community livelihood and resource non-profit organisation. “If a protected forest is in a degraded state, it is a case for ecosystem restoration,” Hardtke added.

The powers that be

“It is only relatively recently that the Ministry of Environment areas have become major targets for land concessions, as many of the other areas have already gone,” said Graeme Brown, a development consultant who has worked in Cambodia for the past 12 years with a focus on indigenous land rights. Few people interviewed for this article could provide a reason for the sudden surge in land concessions within protected zones this year, but a US embassy cable in May 2009 talked of investors emphasising the need to ‘act now’ to buy concessions before available land became unavailable.

For land to be granted as a concession, it must be excised from State Public Land. However, a 2007 United Nations’ report found that preconditions such as land registration, public consultations and environmental and social impact assessments have not been carried out. ‘Likewise, restrictions on the size and ownership of economic land concessions have not been properly enforced,’ noted the Economic Land Concessions in Cambodia: A Human Rights Perspective report. “Time and time again we see that boundaries are not respected, meaning logging operations extend far beyond the approved zone and surrounding areas are systematically stripped of the most valuable timber resources,” said Hardtke.

Within a five-week period, from June 3 to July 15, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed six land concessions in protected areas to agribusiness companies, totalling 46,000 hectares. The Ministry of Environment and the Forestry Administration are obliged to oversee the paperwork, the conservation source said, “but now people are going straight to the top for political approval, by-stepping lower level channels.” Asked to comment on such concessions, Sem Soroeun said: “I may be the spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, but I cannot talk clear on this.”

The World Bank and the UN refused to comment on the issue at all. Peter Brimble, a senior economist with the Asian Development Bank in Cambodia, would say only that: “As an institution, if something is not considered within the law, we cannot approve of it and we see it as a concern and are not comfortable with that.”