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Maps of Virachey National Park and its surrounding areas in northeastern Cambodia
Maps of Virachey National Park and its surrounding areas in northeastern Cambodia illustrate forest coverage and deforestation in 1973 (left) and 2013. OPEN DEVELOPMENT CAMBODIA

Can’t see the forest …

The percentage of Cambodia covered in forest has fallen from about 72 per cent in 1973 to only about 46 per cent in 2013, satellite image data released yesterday shows.

A series of animated maps that Open Development Cambodia (ODC) produced from NASA satellite images detail the drastic depletion of the Kingdom’s forest areas, a process that has rapidly accelerated in the past five years.

“Analysis of satellite images shows that in 1973, approximately 72.11 per cent of Cambodia was covered by forest,” ODC’s website states. “More recent images suggest that today’s forest cover is closer to 46.33 percent, inclusive of tree plantation.”

In 1973, ODC’s data shows, about 42 per cent of the country was covered by dense forest, a figure that has plummeted to less than 11 per cent in 2013.

The animated maps show widespread depletion across the country, especially in the north, northeast, west and southwest. As the animations – each lasting about two minutes – move further along a timeline from 1973 to 2013, greenery disappears at a much faster rate. By the end, dense forest areas are shadows of their former selves, having become non-forest areas or “mixed forest”. These areas can include land turned over for development as rubber and other plantations.

Since 1973, the percentage of total land that is mixed forest has increased from 30 to 35 per cent, the data shows.

“Analysis of Cambodia’s pre-war forest, compared to forest cover in 1989, showed only minor changes, while significant changes were observed between 2000 and 2013,” the website says.

Vast amounts of the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province have been decimated in the past four years, while the large expanses of Virachey National Park in the northeast have lost their once-dense forests.

Thy Try, executive director and editor in-chief of Open Development Cambodia, said yesterday that his organisation’s role wasn’t to provide analysis. Equally, ODC did not draw links between the data and events happening at the time.

“[But if] you were interested in learning more about the Cardamoms in 1999-2000, you could investigate the economic land concessions and other growth areas occurring in the same region and make appropriate conclusions,” he said.

In the early 2000s, the government began using land to lure investors and introduced a new land law that, in part, focused on the awarding of economic land concessions.

Rights groups say millions of hectares have since been awarded to private companies for development and hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by land disputes.

Marcus Hardtke, program coordinator for German conservation group ARA, said direct correlations could be drawn between governance at the highest level, ELCs and the extent of deforestation.

“It’s pretty intense,” he said. “The whole thing is completely sidelining Cambodian law. The extent of it is shocking.”

Hardtke said ODC’s maps provide a “complete picture countrywide” of what was happening.

“Usually, it’s small stories … people often don’t see the big picture. But over the last few years, they’ve done a lot of damage in Ratanakkiri – satellite pictures contain very little forest.… The northwest is being destroyed [as well].

“They’re supposed to be protected areas.… All you see is rubber, rubber, rubber,” he said.

Hardtke predicted the deforestation to continue unless a moratorium on logging activities inside ELCs and an independent review into timber resources inside them occurred.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that he was not in a position to comment in depth about the matter.

“I don’t want to give any misinformation,” he said, before offering to provide documents detailing the government’s position on addressing deforestation today.

A Ministry of Land Management spokeswoman could not be reached.

Try, from ODC, said further data, broken down province by province, shows “that Banteay Meanchey, Koh Kong and Takeo all show significant decreases year over year”.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that a Cambodian team has undertaken this kind of Landsat analysis,” he said.

On its website, ODC says obstacles faced in collating the data included cloud coverage and seasonal changes.

“Although the Forest Cover Change maps are a product of rigorous analysis, a number of limitations and potential mapping biases still persist,” it says.

The data follows separate studies last month by the Regional Community Forestry Training Center and the University of Maryland showing that Cambodia has lost a significant amount of forest land in the past decade.

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