The government reforested 80,693 hectares of land between 2008 and 2012 as part of its efforts to combat deforestation, a recent agriculture ministry report says, but these seemingly impressive statistics were reached by counting rubber trees and other agricultural crops as adequate replacements for forests.
The replanting also coincided with the most accelerated period of deforestation in the past four decades. Between 2009 and 2013, total forest cover decreased from 60.18 per cent to 46.33 per cent, according to satellite maps released in December by Open Development Cambodia (ODC) that were subsequently repudiated by the ministry.
Dense, or evergreen, forest cover in the Kingdom decreased by 52 per cent over the same period, the maps showed, while mixed forest cover – which includes tree crops – dropped by just two per cent in comparison, perhaps showing where the government’s efforts are making an impact.
According to the report released by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries late last month, reforestation in 70,095 hectares of the total area over the five-year period was by private firms granted economic land concessions, with the rest done by the forestry administration, the army and citizens on the annual “forestry day”.
Organisations such as ODC that have presented data showing monumental forest loss in Cambodia have failed to mention the increase in agricultural crops on deforested land, making their reports one-sided, said Thorn Sarath, a director at the Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry Administration department.
“The reason that in the year 2013 we received [almost] $16 million in revenue, more than [the total] in [the previous] five years, is because reforestation has increased on the orders of the government,” he said.
But conservationists like Marcus Hardtke, program coordinator for German conservation group ARA, said that agricultural crops cannot possibly be deemed as having replaced evergreen forest.
“They basically turned forest ecosystems into agricultural land, and that is pretty irrelevant. A rubber farm, oil palm, even a rice field: agriculture of a monoculture crop has nothing to do with forest,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean at all that they are serious about reforestation or re-creating real forest habitats.”
Ouch Leng, director of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, added that the government’s reforestation efforts were merely a facade.
“They have destroyed luxury forests and replaced [them] with Acacia trees. Destroying so many trees year after year and then reforesting 80,000 hectares in five years is not equal,” he said.
Despite placing a ban on new economic land concessions in 2012, the government came under fire last year for allowing companies such as those owned by tycoon Try Pheap to continue to rampantly log in and around their existing concessions – which are often far greater in total than the legal limit of 10,000 hectares – with the complicity of local authorities.
In October, the National Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organisation said it had found illegal logging in every protected forest in the country.
In November, a University of Maryland study found that about seven per cent of Cambodia’s forests had been logged in the past 12 years. Another investigation carried out by the Regional Community Forestry Training Center showed that Cambodia had lost 420,000 hectares of forest between 2002 and 2012.
While not taking the same view as conservationists on the replanting of forest with rubber trees or concurring on the scale of deforestation alleged in those studies, the ministry’s report frankly notes that the forestry administration is far from perfect.
“At the same time as the developments that the Forestry Administration has achieved, there have also been difficulties and problems,” it says.
“Some government staff are lacking competence and still have no discipline or commitment to fulfill their tasks. Cooperation and participation with local authorities are still limited, especially in controlling forest crime. The perpetrators are always changing their tactics.”
The report does, however, note that 51 forest communities were established on 13,895 hectares of land between 2008 and 2012, with 1,760 cases of illegal logging cracked down on, saving 15,927 hectares and resulting in 337 machine saws seized.
Separately, a statement issued by forestry administration chief Chheng Kim Son and posted on the agriculture ministry’s website rejects the damning satellite images and data from ODC showing forest cover decreasing to 46.33 per cent in 2013 as “biased” and technically unclear.
“The change in forest cover by ODC from 2009 to 2013 is largely biased because of the technique [used],” he said, adding that the satellite images used were not reliable and that images from 2013 could not be analysed due to clouds obscuring more than 20 per cent the land mass.
The statement also says that differing definitions of what constitutes a forest make any such analysis problematic, with the ODC hence overstating the scale of deforestation in the Kingdom.
But ODC’s director, Thy Try, yesterday said that while cloud cover in satellite images made analysis challenging, all images used aside from 2013 contained less than 1 per cent cloud cover, with the 2013 image containing 6.47 per cent.
“We would like to emphasise that these kinds of maps are meant to show trends; the limitations of the satellite images themselves will always lead to some variation in interpretation … that said, the most important overall trend, which is the loss of dense/old growth forest, is clear from the satellite images,” he wrote in an email.
Hardtke agreed that while using satellite imagery to estimate forest cover and percentages lost to deforestation could be highly problematic for a number of reasons, it was a useful tool for observing long-term trends.
In 2010, the government said Cambodia’s forest cover had decreased to 57 per cent. Although an updated figure is yet to be officially released, the government has frequently stated that it will reach the millennium development goal of 60 per cent forest cover by 2015.