Cambodia’s Protected Forest Designation Met with Skepticism

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In Cambodia, deforestation rates are among the highest in the world. This is due in large part to the illegal logging industry there, which exports luxury timber. The Cambodian government, under Prime Minister Hun Sen, has recently set aside land to be protected in an attempt to curb deforestation and protect wildlife and its habitats. However many worry about the extent and location of the forests protected and doubt that laws will be effectively enforced, or that the people engaging in illegal logging will be punished.

In late April, Cambodia announced hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest will be protected from logging. However, this is overshadowed in the eyes of many by the other actions of the Cambodian government. Along with the forest protection announcement, the government banned non­government patrolling and monitoring those forests against illegal activities. This was regularly carried out by indigenous groups and environmental activists. The government and military are suspected to be cooperating with timber industry giants, and protecting areas of forest many times does nothing to deter logging there. The opposition of the government and environmental activists is exemplified well in their disagree over the most significant actors driving deforestation. The government, with ties to those industry giants, blames small­scale villagers. The activists, who work closely with the indigenous groups, draw attention to timber tycoons and crime syndicates.

View of the Prey Lang Forest in 2008.  Source: Prey Lang Community Network, Wikimedia Commons.   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prey_Lang_Forest_Aerial.jpg
View of the Prey Lang Forest in 2008. Source: Prey Lang Community Network under license CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons.

The skepticism with which this new designation has been received is not surprising. As the timber elite goes unpunished and laws unenforced, a series of suspicious attacks and assassinations of environmental activists and forest rangers has occurred. Meanwhile, timber tycoon Try Pheap has just announced that he will construct an international port on the Cambodian coast. The announcement comes with comments on how the development will help the country’s economy, but will likely only accelerate deforestation and exports of the luxury timber of which Pheap oversees extraction.

Protected area designations are meaningless if not enforced. Cambodia forces environmentalists to think about appropriate means for conservation, different levels of governance ­ from local to global ­ and the global economy. When demand for luxury Cambodian timber is high in China and elsewhere, how and where should this problem be addressed? Like the problem of ivory demand, and the broad topic of climate change, consumption lies beneath the problem and should not be ignored.

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