By Chris Lang
“Forests under Threat,” was the title of a recent article in the Phnom Penh Post. It’s a good article, but the headline could have been this year’s entry for the Basil Fawlty Award for stating the bleeding obvious. Cambodia’s forests, what’s left of them after years of destructive logging (legal and illegal), industrial agrobusiness and mining concessions, are among the most threatened on the planet.
The Phnom Penh Post article notes that a total of 1.3 million hectares of economic land concessions have been handed out by the government, according to the Forestry Authority’s 2010 Annual Report. Independent mapping suggests that the total area of concessions is actually much higher.
In the article, Conservation International’s regional director, David Emmet, is quoted pointing out that the chaotic way in which the concessions are awarded threatens to undermine REDD in Cambodia:
“There’s a lot of donors and governments wanting to invest in Cambodia … [but] they don’t know if they can be sure that the area that is designated, for example, as a REDD-filed demonstration site, will not suddenly have a new, 10,000-hectare economic land concession.”
REDD has been discussed in Cambodia for several years. In February 2009, the country produced a Readiness Plan Idea Note (R-PIN) under the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership. In January 2011, Cambodia produced its Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP). A REDD Readiness Roadmap is in progress, with funding from UNDP and FAO. A consultation process has been taking place, which observers describe as “collaborative” and the “best ever” in terms of involving a wide range of NGOs and community representatives.
In addition, there are several NGO-led REDD type projects in Cambodia. More are at the planning stage.
The trouble with all this is that it has had no impact whatsoever on the rate of deforestation in Cambodia. The root causes of deforestation, such as land concessions, logging, mining, quarrying and rampant corruption in Cambodia might as well be taking place on a different planet for all the difference the REDD readiness process is making.
In February 2011, the government approved a 20,400 hectare concession to a company called United Khmer Group, for a titanium mine in forests in the Cardamom Mountains, Koh Kong province. Wildlife Alliance, a conservation NGO with an eco-tourism project in the area, put out a statement saying that the mining concession,
“threatens to devastate one of the last remaining elephant corridors on the continent, put more than 70 endangered and vulnerable species at risk, and degrade one of the world’s largest remaining carbon sink reserves.”
The Prey Lang forest in the north of Cambodia is another area of forest under severe threat. It is the largest area of intact lowland evergreen forest remaining in southeast Asia. Covering an area of 3,600 square kilometres it is extraordinarily biodiverse. It is home to the Kuy indigenous people, as well as elephants, tigers, bears, gaurs, banteng, pileated gibbon, hornbills, vipers, wild pigs, rare crocodiles, turtles, otters and frogs. About 700,000 mainly indigenous people, live around the forest and a significant number depend on the forest for their livelihoods. Non-timber forest products are the backbone of the local traditional economy.
Despite being unique, the forest is not protected. It is under serious threat from mining, illegal logging, plantations, dams, power lines and roads. For several years, companies have been building a network of roads through the forest. In the last four months, PNT Company and CRCK Company have started bulldozing forest to make way for rubber plantations. Two more rubber plantations are planned to the north of this area. The government may already have awarded these concessions.
Villagers have formed a network to protect the forest. Last week, hundreds of them protested against the clearing and the impact it is having on their livelihoods. On 22 February 2011, more than 400 network members from three forest provinces travelled into the forest in an attempt to block the clearing. Some were stopped by police and turned back. Villagers set up vigil in two locations. The following day they planned to protest at the companies’ offices, but the authorities reacted by employing military and provincial police who blocked the way when they got near the companies’ offices. The police fired warning shots into the air and aimed their guns at villagers, threatening to shoot at them if they moved any further. The police did not allow food and water supplies to the protesters. The provincial governor of Kompong Thom where the companies have their offices, told the Cambodia Daily that he ordered that the protesters be stopped “because he feared they would turn violent and damage property.” The group continued for a third day, but with no water they had to abandon their protest. Despite this setback, the villagers are determined to continue their struggle to protect the Prey Lang forest.
Radio Free Asia has produced two videos (in Khmer) about the destruction of the forests and the protests:
There is wide-spread recognition that Cambodia’s forests are under threat. Even prime minister Hun Sen recently suggested that no more than a total area of 300,000 hectares should be awarded as economic land concessions for rubber plantations in order to preserve Cambodia’s forests and prevent climate change. “We can protect the forest to help reduce climate change,” Hun Sen said.
Ly Phalla, head of the General Directorate of Rubber, doesn’t seem concerned. He estimates the current area of rubber plantations at 181,500 hectares (although the true figure is probably already over 300,000 hectares). In any case, says Ly Phalla, “There is no problem from rubber plantations because the government has banned the cutting of economic timbers.”
Try telling that to the network of villagers in Prey Lang who have seen the destruction the rubber plantation companies have caused to the forest.
None of this is to dismiss REDD in Cambodia as a hopeless waste of time. At least not just yet. But there isn’t much time left for Cambodia’s forests. If REDD cannot stop the destruction of Cambodia’s forests, especially Prey Lang forest, then it will have been a hopeless waste of time.