A senior environment official yesterday alleged that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and human rights groups should shoulder much of the blame for the destruction of the country’s protected areas.
Speaking at a seminar in Phnom Penh, Srun Sarith, a deputy director in the Ministry of Environment, said the government faced serious difficulties in solving land disputes because the CNRP and rights groups had encouraged people living near national parks and wildlife sanctuaries to go into the logging business by supporting their claims to the land.
“To put it simply, a group enters and occupies land illegally and they start to protest for the land. They [the CNRP and rights groups] prepare documents for their protests,” he said. “This causes serious problems for us to deal with these cases.”
In September, a leading resource monitoring group, Global Forest Watch, estimated that the rate of deforestation in Cambodia had accelerated faster than any other country in the world since 2001.
Numerous economic land concessions, leases mostly granted for agro-industrial projects, were handed out in or near protected areas to private companies, which analysts blame for driving the forest loss.
Yem Ponharith, a spokesman for the CNRP, yesterday denied the charge made by Sarith.
“The rights to land should be clearly demarcated between state land and people’s land,” he said. “When land grabs happen, people lose out, then more people come along and they end up losing all of their land. I really hope the authorities will thoroughly study this issue.”
Latt Ky, the head of local rights group Adhoc’s land and natural resources section, said that the large-scale forest clearance Cambodia has witnessed in recent years was driven almost exclusively by powerful officials.
Officials and local communities “should cooperate to take stringent measures to eradicate impunity so that protected areas can be maintained”, he said.
Ministry of Environment official Kim Nong, speaking at the seminar yesterday, said the ministry expects that by 2020 at least half of Cambodia’s protected areas will have their outer boundaries demarcated and many will have “conservation zones” that are protected from future developments.
A new management plan for the areas due to come into effect next year will require an additional $9.4 million until 2020, which could come from international donors, but also from redirecting tax revenue and fines, he added.