Protected areas and other biodiversity hotspots across Southeast Asia are increasingly under threat from expanding rubber plantations, with Cambodia at risk of losing more ecologically important land than any of its neighbours, a recent study reports.
If current trends continue, Cambodia stands to lose more than 2,500 square kilometres of protected areas to rubber plantations by 2020 – an area about the size of Luxembourg – according to a new study to be published in the September issue of the journal Global Environmental Change.
That number was significantly higher than for the other four countries surveyed – Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand – with Vietnam clocking in at 1,900 square kilometres of protected areas potentially lost.
Cambodia is also predicted to cede more ground than that quartet in every other category of environmentally significant land save one: conservation corridors, where Vietnam fares slightly worse.
And the destruction may not even be lucrative, the report contends.
The higher and colder areas that plantations are expanding into are less suitable for rubber cultivation than the traditional humid lowlands, leading to lower yields.
“There is clear potential for loss-loss scenarios when forest is being cleared for rubber plantations that are not economically sustainable, and that have negative impacts on soils and water balance,” the study’s lead researcher, Antje Aarhends, said in a statement.
Although rubber has been cultivated in Cambodia since it was introduced by French colonists in the early 20th century, some parts of the Kingdom remain unsuitable for the cash crop’s cultivation.
Rising rubber prices over the past decade have led to an expansion of areas under cultivation, some of which have not been ideal for rubber growing, said Men Sopheak, deputy director general of Chop Rubber Plantation in Kampong Cham.
“Some of them have planted rubber in what we call non-traditional areas”, he said.
However, a more than 50 per cent drop in rubber prices since 2012 has led to some shifts, Sopheak added.
“Now we can see that some of them have chopped down those [rubber] trees and converted into other crops like peppers or cashew nuts.”
Nevertheless, the study predicts the issue will intensify as prices eventually head upward.
When that happens, Cambodia’s fragile ecosystem is set to suffer more than other countries in the region due to a lack of governance and well-connected Vietnamese rubber companies, said Jago Wadley, senior investigator at the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
“Most importantly, Cambodia’s governance structures can be bought, and laws can be ignored in what is often a rule of law vacuum when forests are concerned.”
Attempts to reach Forest Administration officials were unsuccessful yesterday.