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Can’t see the trees for the wood

Can’t see the trees for the wood

16 loggers transport timber
A dwindling resource: loggers transport timber in Stung Treng province earlier this month. Photograph: Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post

In the early 1990s, I learned from a high-school geography textbook that forest covered 73 per cent of Cambodia. How much of Cambodia is still forested today? What kinds of trees are
left for the next generation to learn about at school?

Occasionally, forest administrat-ion officers will talk off the record, saying they feel hopeless about the future of forests.

Some think about their future careers, such as planting cassava, rubber or cashew trees on their land or finding other jobs.

They know that if Cambodia’s forests continue to be logged and exploited as they are today, they will be extinct within the next five years.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, valuable trees were logged to buy weapons and food for soldiers who were battling the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. At the time, that was probably a reasonable thing to do.

But nowadays, cutting high-value timber is just a way for high-ranking officials, traders and companies to line their own pockets.

We don’t know how much revenue the Cambodian government gets from logging each year, but we do know the nation’s roads are cracking up under the strain of countless truckloads of timber.  

And that’s not all. Some officials are demanding money from forests administration, police and military police, soldiers and journalists.

In some instances, the illicit trade in valuable timber came to light only after conflicts occurred at checkpoints.

Writing an article about illegal logging cost journalist Virak Chun his life. He was allegedly shot dead by a military police officer in Ratanakkiri province last year.

Chut Wutty, on a mission to protect the remaining forested areas in Koh Kong province, was also killed last year.

There’s an old saying that if humans destroy nature, nature will destroy humans.

A generation ago, only trees were struck by lightning – but now that vast areas of Cambodia have been cleared, humans are falling victim. Last year, 103 people were killed by lightning.

The risk of flash-flooding has also increased. In September, 2011, foreign tourists had to rush to high ground at the Banteay Srey temple, in Siem Reap province, when a torrent flowed down a mountainside that had been stripped of most of its trees.

Between March 12 and 28 this year alone, rain and storms levelled 1500 houses in Cambodia.

During the first quarter of this year, 2800 homes were destroyed by extreme weather events – five times as many as in the corresponding period of last year.

And at least 24 people died in lightning strikes during that time, according to Keo Vy, deputy director of information at the Natural Disaster Management Committee.

The destruction of so many homes was not the result of a typhoon. It was simply because large tracts of forest, which had acted as a windbreak, were cut down, allowing the wind to blow freely and rainwater to flow unimpeded.

Topographically, Cambodia is shaped like a frying pan, and until recently it had huge tracts of forest that functioned as a barrier to bad weather.

In the past, we rarely heard about destruction caused by the wind, but now it happens in most of Cambodia’s provinces. And, as always, it is mainly the poor who suffer from natural disasters caused largely by the actions of rich and powerful people.

Stocks of kranhoung, a valuable, sought-after wood, have almost been exhausted in Cambodia, and in February the government released an order prohibiting the cutting and trading of kranhoung timber.

Last month, the government also created the Green Development National Committee and its secretariat.

This is a step in the right direction by the ruling party; it’s just a pity it didn’t happen 20 years ago.

Valuable wood isn’t like a rubber plantation; it’s an asset handed down from our ancestors and, unlike a row of rubber trees, it takes a lot longer than four or five years to reap the benefits.  But it takes only a short time to destroy it.

In a plea to the electorate, prime minister Hun Sen has warned voters that if the Cambodian People’s Party doesn’t win the next national elect-ion, no more bridges or roads will be constructed. If the CPP wins, however, the construction program will continue.

But Hun Sen has never promised that the area of forest in Cambodia will be increased.

And it’s interesting that the CPP always compares its stable rule with the ruin that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, but it never mentions the issue of deforestation. That’s a shameful situation.

In fact, the money for bridge and road construction in Cambodia comes mostly from foreign funding or loans.

Roads and bridges are different from forests, but similar in the sense that the government must be able to maintain them.

This situation has arisen not because the government lacks political will, but simply because it is not fulfilling its duty to maintain the Kingdom’s forests.

This is already causing terrible problems, and will continue to do so in the future.

Tong Soprach is a social-affairs columnist for the Post’s Khmer edition.

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