While the luxury timber trade continues to eat away at Cambodia’s forests, there is another industry that poses a growing threat to the Kingdom’s trees: pepper farms.
Interviews with dozens of residents, local officials, conservation NGOs and experts in Mondulkiri, Kratie and Tbong Khmum provinces reveal that pepper farms are growing in popularity among those who can afford to create them.
The result, conservationists say, is nonluxury trees being indiscriminately cut down to be made into pepper stakes that are sold locally and in Vietnam.
Compounding the problem is the need for more space to accommodate the new plantations, leading to hundreds of hectares of the Kingdom’s forests being chopped down to make way.
“We have seen an increasing number of pepper [farms] rising in the past few years,” said Mondulkiri Governor Svay Sam Eang. “In late 2015, there were about 300 or 400 hectares but in 2016, it may have increased by 200 or 300, so there can be up to 600 hectares across the province.”
“If it is a family growing pepper, it will not be a problem … but if there is a company growing, it will have an impact on deforestation to make stakes, and on water use,” he added.
Sok Ratha, the Adhoc coordinator in Mondulkiri, corroborated Eang’s figures. “Growing pepper in Mondulkiri is very popular and it keeps increasing from year to year,” he said.
The governor of Tbong Khmum’s Memot district, Cheng Bunara, said he had seen even larger areas.
“Across the district, we have more than 2,000 hectares of pepper,” he said.
Over 2015, the amount of land used for pepper grew by 25 per cent, Bunara said, adding that besides Memot district, pepper is also grown in the Ponhea Krek, Dambe and O’Reang-ou districts of Tbong Khmum.
According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2016 Cambodia had produced 11,819 tonnes of black pepper as of the end of May, an increase of 20 per cent compared to the same period last year. About 72 per cent of that came from Tbong Khmum, which has over 2,762 hectares of pepper land.
According to Mey Kalyan, a senior adviser with the government’s Supreme National Economic Council, favourable prices are driving Cambodia’s increase in pepper production.
While Kampot has traditionally been associated with pepper – “Kampot pepper” is a protected designation of origin in the EU – many new pepper farms are also springing up in the hills of Mondulkiri and Kampong Thom. The hilly land is good for pepper, unlike lowlands, which are better for rice, Kalyan said.
The plantation owners tend to be powerful and wealthy individuals, according to multiple local residents and Prak Munny, a consultant who until recently worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
However, those who cut the stakes or clear forests for them tend to be poor people, either hired by businessmen or “freelancing”, who see wood as their best shot at making a living.
“There are two types [of farms],” said Munny. “One is where they buy land from villagers and the other form is where they encroach on land in protected areas. It’s mostly done by powerful individuals.”
Kalyan disagreed, however, saying that the wealthiest agricultural entrepreneurs are still focused on rubber as a primary cash crop. Pepper farms tend to be medium-scale investments by “advanced” farmers. Regardless, the input costs are very high. A 1-hectare pepper farm takes $30,000 to get off the ground, he said.
Analysts say the investment is well worth the money. Pepper commodity prices have been in a “bull market” since 2006 and were still reaching new highs as of February, according to the Indian spice company group Nedspice’s annual pepper report. Nedspice estimates that 40 to 45 per cent of global consumption takes place in Asia.
Data from analysis firm Knoema showed white pepper prices have climbed rapidly from $2,400 per tonne at the end of 2005, to a peak of $15,500 per tonne in July 2015. As of March, the price approached $13,000. Black pepper prices peaked during June 2015 at $10,900 per tonne, compared to $1,560 per tonne in July 2005, according to Nedspice.
“During 2014 Vietnam topped the list with a crop of 155,000 tons, 38.6 per cent share of global production,” Nedspice stated in its report. “Playing the market leader‘s role Vietnam set the benchmark for the global pepper price.”
According to a paper by Jara Zicha, an analyst with the market research firm Mintec, pepper prices have climbed in part due to higher demand, which is strongest in Southeast and East Asia.
These trends make for an increasing number of pepper farms in Vietnam and Cambodia, which draw in thousands of people who cut trees – any trees – to make the supporting stakes for pepper plants, interviews indicate.
Whereas in the past, people mostly looked for luxury wood, the logging now is more indiscriminate – if the wood is not rotten, it will do, locals said.
“Now they changed from transportation of luxury wood to pepper wood,” said Nim Vicheat, a resident of Kratie. “The luxury wood is finished because they had already cut all of it.”
New pepper plantations continue to spring up around the eastern provinces. Driving through Mondulkiri and Kratie, it’s easy to spot patches of missing forest, littered with charred logs. In other places, these burned out clearings have already been cleaned up and planted, with leafy pepper plants winding around rows of stakes extending into the distance.
Locals and conservationists claim that at least some of these plantations are located on state or community land, and are therefore illegal.
This week, the World Wildlife Fund warned that such rampant deforestation is affecting a big cross section of species on the eastern plains, an area that covers Mondulkiri and parts of its adjacent provinces. “Uncontrolled economic growth” was given as a primary reason.
“Companies buy land from villagers for establishing plantations and people try to intrude on conservation areas in search of new land and cut trees for agriculture,” the WWF said in a statement.
Villagers are seeing the same. “The forest is almost gone because companies bulldoze it,” said Kheive Sambor, a village chief in Sre Khtum commune of Keo Seima district in Mondulkiri.
Munny, the conservation consultant, said that, in particular, the encroachment was impacting the southern part of the Seima protected forest.
Besides space, pepper farms also require a lot of water. The farms usually set up near streams or other water sources and divert most of the water into their farm. This leaves less water for the remaining wild plants and animals, according to Munny and several locals.
Since development often occurs unevenly, it can also have side effects for the patches of forest that remain. Putting holes in the forest cover dries out the remaining plants and saps their ability to capture carbon, according to a study published in the science journal Nature Communications in December.
Marcus Hardtke, the Southeast Asia coordinator for German conservation group ARA, said at the time that such degradation was more responsible for forest decline than deforestation, calling the situation “death by 1,000 cuts”.
Multiple attempts to reach officials the Forestry Administration were unsuccessful this week.
Meanwhile, Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said that the government doesn’t have enough personnel to enforce the integrity of protected forests.
As the Ministry of Environment takes over protecting such areas, Sopheap said, it will work closer with community groups to help stop logging and clear-cutting.
Despite authorities acknowledging the issue, some police officers are sceptical. Phin Phall, the police chief of Kratie province’s Kantuot commune said “we try to stop them from transporting pepper wood but it does not work and we do not know why top authorities allow them to do it”.
According to interviews with locals and leaked videos shot by timber smugglers, police, military police and forestry officials also benefit from a lucrative bribe economy and are reluctant to make arrests. Following the release of some of these videos, military police spokesman Eng Hy said an internal investigation will be launched.
Officials and community members said that as the pepper craze grows, people from other provinces are coming to eastern Cambodia to get in on the action, causing even more damage to the environment.
“Not only local people but also newcomers want to grow pepper,” said Prob Chib, a member of a Phnong ethnic community in Mondulkiri, adding that the new arrivals hail from Kratie, Kampong Cham, Tbong Khmum, Prey Veng, Takeo and Siem Reap.
“First they cut down the forest and sell the wood, then they occupy the land while they grow pepper, then they cut the forest in another location to make pepper stakes. It’s double deforestation.”