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Forests under threat

forests
A new report claims economic land concessions are eating into Cambodia’s forested areas.

The Forestry Administration has warned that the government will not meet its goal of achieving 60 percent forest cover nationwide if it continues parcelling out the Kingdom’s territory in economic land concessions.

According to the Forestry Administration’s 2010 annual report, released last week and obtained today, more than 1.3 million hectares worth of economic land concessions have been granted to date.

This figure represents roughly 7 percent of Cambodia’s total territory, an area larger than Kampong Speu and Kampot provinces combined.

Citing data obtained via satellite imagery, the Forestry Administration said 56.94 percent of Cambodia is now forested, a decrease of 2.15 percent from 2006.

“This result is a sign to warn the Forestry Administration as well as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries that the government’s Millennium Development Goal of 60 percent forest cover may not be met because of the trend of loss due to economic land concessions,” the administration said, noting that a number of additional concessions are under consideration.

“A review is much-needed in order to evaluate concession land, and land that has not been used according to the concession contract should be seized for conservation purposes.”

Rights groups have alleged that much of the territory granted in economic land concessions is cleared and left to lie fallow without a clear purpose.

In a statement issued last May, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee called on the government to place a moratorium on economic land concessions until a proper monitoring system was put in place.

The new figures on land concession area represent an increase of roughly 300,000 hectares from 2006.

David Emmett, the regional director for Conservation International, said the legal framework surrounding economic concessions needed to be strengthened in order for Cambodia to preserve its forest cover and take advantage of conservation programmes.

Under the most prominent of such  schemes, the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme, or REDD, countries can “offset” their own carbon emissions by paying other countries to conserve their forests.

“There’s a lot of donors and governments wanting to invest in Cambodia … [but] they don’t know if they can be sure that the area that is designated, for example, as a REDD-filed demonstration site, will not suddenly have a new, 10,000-hectare economic land concession,” Emmett said.

The Forestry Administration’s forest cover figure of 56.94 percent “sounds about right”, Emmett said, adding that Cambodia’s forestry loss has not been occurring as quickly as in other countries in the region.

He noted, however, that areas of degraded forest or partially cleared land are sometimes tallied as forested.

“It doesn’t necessarily fully represent the quality of the forest as well as the quantity of the forest,” he said.

“You can look at something and say it’s still forest, but actually 30 percent of the trees are gone.”

The FA reported that at least 7,977 hectares worth of trees were cleared illegally last year, though it said forestry officials “paid attention and played an active role in combating forestry crimes”.

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a crackdown on illegal logging last year, sacking former Forestry Administration head Ty Sokun in April for his alleged failure to stamp out the practice. Approximately 10,000 cubic metres of illegally wood were ultimately seized in 2010, and 82 Cambodians are now awaiting trial in connection with logging offences, the FA report said.

Human Rights Party spokesman Yem Ponharith said, however, that high-level officials involved in the illegal logging trade were seldom prosecuted and continued to profit from it.

“There have been a number of raids against illegal loggers, but the smuggling of luxury wood continues because of bribes paid to government officials,” he said.

The HRP, he added, has been consistently ignored in its calls to conserve forests and reduce land concessions.

Last May, neighbouring Indonesia declared a moratorium on land concessions in forested areas in a bid to increase its forest cover and preserve territory for use in potential REDD projects, though this move was delayed earlier this month.

Chan Sarun, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, could not be reached for comment today, while Forestry Administration director Chheng Kim Sun declined to comment.

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