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Bantengs, a wild cattle, forage in the jungle in Mondulkiri province in December 2010
Bantengs, a wild cattle, forage in the jungle in Mondulkiri province in December 2010. Cambodian forests form part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, home to more than 2,000 plant species, 500 birds, 10 mammals and 80 fish. AFP/WWF

Cambodia, the EU and their forests

Cambodia hosts varied and extensive forests covering more than 10.8 million hectares representing 57 per cent of the country’s surface, which includes on one side, the natural forests estimated to 35 per cent of the country’s surface and containing biologically unique landscapes and areas of significant cultural heritage, and on the other side, plantation forests (such as rubber trees) that are potentially very productive.

The majority of Cambodia’s rural population are subsistence farmers. Seventy-five per cent of these depend on access to natural forest resources for essential products such as energy and food, particularly in times of hardship. Forests also provide household opportunities for diversification, supplementary income and employment created by forest-product-based enterprises.

While forests have substantially provided the basis for rural livelihoods, they have also been a source of conflict and exploitation. As a result, over the past four decades forest cover has decreased by 14 per cent. Some experts estimate that Cambodia has lost more than a quarter of its remaining primary forests since 2000. Today Cambodia is facing a challenging task to achieve a balance between economic development and broader community benefits from forests and environmental protection, which cannot be ignored.

In the European Union, forests cover 176 million hectares. This means more than 42 per cent of EU land area is covered with forest. This cover varies across countries from 12 per cent in the United Kingdom and 36 per cent in France to 76 per cent in Sweden and 74 per cent in Finland, for example.

The European forest cover has evolved over time. Since the times of the Romans, forests were cleared to grow crops and raise livestock. From the Middle Ages until 1900, wide expanses of the old forests were cut and timber was used for many purposes: fuel wood, metal production, furniture, ship and house construction. In the early 20th century, natural forests had dramatically declined in Europe. After World War II, many countries started massive afforestation programs that are still running today. In parallel to these afforestation programs, cropland decreased due to technological innovations such as motorisation, better drainage and irrigation systems: less land is now needed to produce the same amount of food. Populations have also migrated from rural areas to cities and are more concentrated. As a result of these technological innovations, social trends and of the sustainable management of its forests, Europe’s forests grew by a third over the past 100 years. In the southern French region of Vaucluse for example, entire mountain ranges were de-forested at the beginning of the 20th century, but the country invested heavily to reverse the trend and today a rich forest has grown.

Natural forests and biodiversity are central to all life forms. The richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development and adaptive responses to such new challenges as climate change. The first assessment of European biodiversity from 2009 has shown that at least 65 per cent of habitats and 52 per cent of species of European importance are at risk of extinction. Although the European Union has made progress towards the internationally agreed conservation targets, it remains a challenge and a significant financial cost to restore the past levels of biodiversity.

With this experience in mind, the European Union has engaged actively at the global level in the fight against illegal logging and in the protection of biodiversity. For the protection of forests, the EU has two tools to ensure that timber imported to Europe is produced legally and from sustainably: the Timber Regulation, which controls timber that is imported in the EU, and the Forestry Law Enforcement and Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, which supports timber-producing countries to export legal timber. On the other hand, with its Biodiversity Strategy, the EU aims to halt the loss of biodiversity in the EU by 2020, and to restore it in so far as feasible, while stepping up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss.

Cambodia is blessed with a very rich biodiversity, and forms part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. It is home to more than 2,000 known plant species, 500 birds, 100 mammals and 800 fish. Natural forests are the habitat for approximately 33 per cent of the threatened species in Cambodia. This capital is priceless and should be preserved. It does not exist in forest plantations where monoculture approach transforms those areas in “green deserts” with a severe lack of biodiversity.

The European Union is committed to working with Cambodia in the management of its natural resources and in parallel to adapting to climate change. We already work very closely with the government and with local communities in protecting Cambodian natural forests. In November last year, the European Union decided to commit an additional €149 million ($162 million) until 2020 for the management of natural resources in Cambodia. We do agree with Cambodians, both officials and civil society, that it is important for such forest-rich countries as Cambodia to learn from Europe’s experiences to manage sustainably its existing resources and not to lose decades replanting its forests.

Jean-François Cautain is the European Union’s ambassador to Cambodia.

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