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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Chainsaws stayed busy in past year

A logging truck is loaded with lumber in a section of deforested land owned by Try Pheap in Kampong Thom province
A logging truck is loaded with lumber in a section of deforested land owned by Try Pheap in Kampong Thom province in May. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Chainsaws stayed busy in past year

The extent of the devastation of Cambodia’s forests was brought into sharp relief as 2013 drew to a close, with a series of detailed maps and satellite data released by NGOs showing the drastic depletion of the Kingdom’s woodland ecosystems.

Images released by Open Development Cambodia (ODC) earlier this month showed that the ratio of forest cover has fallen from about 72 per cent in 1973 to only 46 per cent this year.

Whereas about 42 per cent of the country was covered in dense forest in 1973, only about 11 per cent remains so today, the maps showed.

“The whole thing is completely sidelining Cambodian law. The extent of it is shocking . . . They’re supposed to be protected areas . . . All you see is rubber, rubber, rubber,” Marcus Hardtke, program coordinator for German conservation group ARA, said at the time.

In November, a University of Maryland study offered yet more evidence of the scale of the devastation of Cambodia’s forests. It found that about seven per cent of Cambodia’s forests had been logged in the past 12 years

Another investigation into logging, carried out by the Regional Community Forestry Training Center in November, added to the damming indictment of government policy on forests, showing that Cambodia lost 420,000 hectares last year alone, about 3.8 per cent of the total.

Despite a moratorium on new economic land concessions (ELCs) last year that came shortly on the heels of the murder of prominent forest activist Chut Wutty, logging in and around ELCs and protected areas continued apace in 2013.

A member of a village patrol stands with a confiscated chainsaw and logs in Prey Lang forest in May
A member of a village patrol stands with a confiscated chainsaw and logs in Prey Lang forest in May. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Illegal deforestation and the transport of logs, mostly rosewood, both spiked in the period following the election, the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC) and the Cambodian Youth Network said in August. “The government has to urge its officials . . . to not collaborate with businesspeople for their own benefit. They have to arrest those traders and jail them,” CCFC coordinator Theng Savoeun said.

The northeast of the country was particularly badly hit, with rights groups pinning the blame on tycoon Try Pheap, who has exclusive rights to collect and buy luxury timber from all government-granted ELCs in 15 provinces.

In February, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries granted Pheap an exclusive licence to collect and buy timber from ELCs in Ratanakkiri.

Pheap is thought to be closely connected with officials from the ministries of interior and agriculture, the military, forestry officials and other concessionaires, and a number of reports this year leveled complaints against his firms’ activities.

In October, the National Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organization said an investigation it had carried out had even found illegal logging in every protected forest in the country. Huge areas of formerly protected sanctuaries have been reclassified and parceled out as economic land concessions over the past several years, leaving just small areas protected.

The Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary has been 90 per cent deforested, a forestry official admitted in October, while a Post investigation in April found that about 60 per cent of the 75,000-hectare sanctuary’s evergreen forest had been cleared since 2009.

A load of allegedly illegal lumber in Kampong Thom province’s Sandan district in May
A load of allegedly illegal lumber in Kampong Thom province’s Sandan district in May. PHOTO SUPPLIED

And in a report released in August, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said it had amassed evidence of rampant illegal logging in Preah Vihear being carried out under orders from Pheap.

Global Witness, which was expelled from Cambodia in 2005, released a report in May focused on Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) and privately owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), which it found had gained ELCs several times greater in size than the legal limit of 10,000 hectares.

The effects of illegal logging carried out by subsidiaries of the companies included food and water shortages, loss of livelihoods without compensation and the destruction of burial grounds and sacred forests, the report said. Intimidation, violence and arrests of people protesting against the logging were common, it added.

Despite pledging to clean up its act, HAGL continued to illegally fell trees in its concessions, Global Witness said in November. “It’s been busy telling us and everyone else it’s serious about changing its ways, but the evidence indicates that logging is still carrying on and the people whose farms were bulldozed are still struggling to feed themselves,” Global Witness’s Megan MacInnes said in a statement.

Pheap was accused of harvesting luxury Thnong and Neang Nuon wood from the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, storing it in HAGL concessions and exporting it by boat to Vietnam on the Srepok River.

In spite of the numerous allegations of wrongdoing lodged against the businessman this year, Pheap did not shy away from the spotlight, filing defamation charges against two people quoted in a November report by the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force.

In southern Cambodia, forest in the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, including on Oral Mountain in the eastern part of the Cardamoms, is being “obliterated” by systematic logging, threatening the small number of elephants and tigers that remain, locals told the Post earlier this month.

Behind the logging, they said, were HLH Agriculture, controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sister Hun Seng Ny, the Phnom Penh Sugar Company and the Kampong Speu Sugar Company, which are both owned by ruling party senator and tycoon Ly Yong Phat.

A bulldozer clears an area of forest in an economic land concession In Ratanakkiri province earlier this year
A bulldozer clears an area of forest in an economic land concession In Ratanakkiri province earlier this year. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Try Pheap’s companies were allegedly contracted to clear the way for the firms’ corn and sugar plantations.

Communities affected by deforestation did not take the huge losses lying down, however, lodging numerous complaints to the authorities and NGOs, and organising two rounds of patrols to catch illegal loggers in Prey Lang forest in response to the post-election logging boom.

In a small victory for opponents of the controversial Lower Sesan II dam, tycoon Kith Meng’s concession to log the reservoir was temporarily suspended in October.

A commission of inquiry was also set up to investigate the operations of a subsidiary of Meng’s Royal group, which has been accused of logging outside of the agreed-upon concession area.

The opposition has been consistently vocal in its criticism of the government’s policy on forests and the granting of ELCs, with prominent MP Son Chhay telling the Post illegal logging was “probably the most critical issue in Cambodia today”.

Defying a ban on political activity, monks led by But Buntenh chimed into the dispute between villagers in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley and China Guodian Corporation, which has a contract to build a hydropower dam in the area.

“Now I’m calling on the whole world to join us to prevent and protect our forest, because I always think of and call myself the same life as the forest,” Buntenh told the Post at the time.

The scale of the devastation is becoming more evident year-on-year.

What remains to be seen is whether enough pressure can be brought to bear on the authorities so that an attempt can be made to begin to reverse the losses in the years to come.

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