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Forest follies

I write in response to the report about the 20,000-hectare land concessions granted

by the government to Sal Sophea Co Ltd and Sopheak Nika Investment Agro-Industrial

Plants Co Ltd, written by your reporter Sam Rith ("Ministry of Environment left

out of Stung Trung land deals," Post, Sep 23, 2005).

It seems the Cambodian government does not stop awarding more land, secretly, to

plantation companies despite criticism from environmentalists, NGOs and the United

Nations. Giving more land concessions will only cause more social and ecological

crises. Where there are land concessions, there are disputes between local people,

and the local authorities and companies.

In almost 10 years, huge land concessions have been popping up across the country.

Forest clearing, road building, land grabbing, illegal logging and traditional slash-and-burn

agriculture, carried out by poor farmers, powerful individuals and huge plantations

companies and the government, have continued across the country, shrinking Cambodia's

native forests. Meantime, companies start plantations with fast-growing trees such

as acacia, eucalyptus, palms, rubber, teak, cashew, etc. These fast-growing trees

mean the company will make fast-money without thinking of possible long-term impacts.

From what I have learnt about the environment, adopting the large-scale plantation

model from other countries, particularly eucalyptus, is a dangerous thing for Cambodia.

Environmentalists who surveyed large-scale plantations of eucalyptus for the pulp

and paper industry in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, believe that eucalyptus plantations

have detrimental social and environmental impact.

Social and Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) have been conducted, and the findings

indicate that both people and environment are inevitably impacted.

Both government and companies are saying the development of agro-industrial plantation

investment projects would be on degraded forest or infertile land, and create more

jobs for the locals living inside and around the concession so that their living

standards would improve. But environmentalists and people in the community disagree.

People are seen not to benefit from the plantations.

The evironmentalists found that the concession areas are covered with thick and dense

forests. They also found that some land concessions overlap protected areas, and

that companies break the country's forestry law and abuse the labor law. People in

the local communities said their livelihoods are in danger if the forest disappears.

The companies promised not to damage the environment in compliance with the SEIA

and the contract they made with the government. Defying the promise and the law,

the companies logged illegally and bulldozed the whole forest and stripped it bare.

It looks like genocide when the local tree species have been rooted out and burned,

then replaced with a monoculture species.

The land concessions are worse than the logging concessions. After logging concessionaires

have taken commercial-grade timber, they go away. But the plantation companies stripped

bare the forests, taking the trees and then keep the land for at least 70 years in

their deals with the government, leaving people nowhere to earn a living, and no

habitats for wildlife.

In response, the forest community people are up against the plantation companies

for clearing the forest. In fact, companies offered them work on the plantation,

but they turned down the offer as they did not want to destroy their own forest.

So the companies imported workers from other provinces. The local people are battling

the company because they cannot afford to lose any more land and forest, not because

they are politically motivated as they have been accused. They are concerned about

their livelihood, which is reliant on forest by-products collection.

The local people have known very well the benefit the forest provides them. They

know the number of resin trees they inherited from their parents and grand-parents.

They know every tree that produces seasonal fruits, bark for medicines and flowers,

and they would know some species of tree bark, vines and enriched herbals that provide

traditional medicines as remedies for sickness.

Leave the Cambodian forest alone, so that it will remain ever-green in the South-East

Asian region. Destroying the forest is like breaking the rice bowl of the people.

The government should stop conceding land to plantation companies, and prove its

strong will to stop deforestation.

Lon Nara, Freelance journalist, Phnom Penh

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