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Erasing Asia tree by tree

When future historians begin to assess the causes and effects of

deforestation in the 20th century, their discussions may well begin

with the wanton destruction of Asian rainforests. 

Most tropical Asian countries have either eliminated or severely

altered more than 85 percent of their original plant cover. The

destruction is continental in scale and probably unprecedented in

natural history. 

Cambodia maintains about 50 percent of its original forest cover –

often much degraded, but forests nonetheless – and comprises a

significant part of the “Indo-Burma hotspot”: a biogeographic region

renowned for its high biological diversity.

In recognition of this extraordinary biological richness, Cambodia in

the early 1990s chose to establish protected areas in mountainous

regions, where demand for arable land was less acute and logging was

more expensive.

Timber companies, however, typically enjoy first right of access to

highly lucrative stands of wet, lowland forests as they produce high

timber volumes and need minimal investment for road construction and

timber extraction.

This general policy lacks logic because it encourages economists and

land use planners to conserve a country’s least productive forests.

The practice also circumvents sound conservation plans, since lowland

rainforests sustain unique species and biological communities that are

not represented in mountainous terrain.

Just how unique are living communities of lowland environments in

relation to mountainous terrain? In Cambodia we simply do not know. The

only detailed scientific publication about a lowland rainforest in

Cambodia focuses on an evergreen rainforest that once thrived near

Sihanoukville.

This forest is lost to history, having been converted into an acacia

tree plantation for making pulp and woodchips for plasterboard.

This situation is unfortunate, because it means Cambodian foresters

have no single study to which they can refer for guidance to make sound

land management decisions.

This is a sorry state of affairs for a country that depends heavily on

its timber resources, especially so when all other lowland rainforests

in Cambodia, such as those once found on the southern slopes of the

Cardamom and Phnom Damrei (Bokor) mountains, are damaged beyond

recognition.

These once productive woodlands will require many decades of careful

management before timber extraction can resume. Or, perhaps of equal

importance, they will need many centuries of safekeeping before they

return to their original state.

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