In Samrong Leu village, a picturesque community nestled deep in the verdant fields of Kors Kralor district, the acrid smell of smoke fills the air.
Outside almost every house in this community, billows of smoke continuously emerge from the domes of homemade mud kilns, drifting around the families lounging outside and their children at play.
Piles of freshly logged timber are everywhere. When the 10-day to two-week burning and cooling cycle of each kiln is completed, the next batch of logs goes in.
Rain or shine in Samrong Leu, producing charcoal is how most people make their livelihoods.
But while demand for charcoal is only increasing as Cambodia’s population grows, forests and trees are disappearing, pushing producers deeper into protected areas to find the wood they need.
“This is my main income, my career, and I support my entire family with it,” says 21-year-old Ra Rey, barefoot as he cakes mud with his hands and slaps it onto his kiln, which sits about 30 metres from his home.
“Before, we used to just cut trees around here, but now that they are gone, we are cutting farther and farther [away].”
With prices rising due to low supply, Rey earns about $150 for the more than 3 tonnes of charcoal he produces every month.
Like almost everyone in this village of 150 families, Rey is a poor migrant from a different province – in his case, Prey Veng – who was granted land in the area by local authorities.
A few years ago, three people were killed by an anti-tank mine in a rice field. After that, villagers say they became more wary of harvesting rice. Given the abundance of trees in the area, many switched to charcoal production.
About six years after he started making charcoal, Rey’s three hectares of land are barren and there are no trees left. He has started logging in a state forest at the base of a nearby mountain instead.
Rey pays off soldiers to be able to use his chainsaw there. Charcoal production without a permit is illegal countrywide, but local authorities here generally turn a blind eye.
“They are poor and they have no choice. Making charcoal is illegal, but the authorities have to save the forest or save the lives of the people,” village chief Un Veth says.
Wearing a soot-stained shirt, Rey sits atop a pile of logs amounting to almost 60 felled trees. In three weeks, it will all be charcoal.
“I know that this job destroys the forest, but I have nothing else.”
From kiln to cookstove
Despite the increasing availability of other energy sources, such as gas, Cambodians have a cultural attachment to charcoal and wood use in cooking that is hard to shake.
In Phnom Penh, 30 per cent of residents still use charcoal, while in rural areas, 48 per cent still use wood and 36 per cent use charcoal, according to GERES, a French NGO that has built 11 sustainable community charcoal production centres in Cambodia.
GERES estimates that the Kingdom burns through 500,000 tonnes of charcoal a year, requiring 3.5 million tonnes of wood, but is still studying the problem to come up with a more reliable figure.
Technically, a permit is required from the Forestry Administration for anyone who wants to produce charcoal for commercial use. But the reality is that the entire trade – from the initial producer to the various middlemen and finally the end user – is completely informal and illegal, and often involves bribes being paid along the line.
In some places, like Kors Kralor, charcoal is produced in the open on farmland. Trucks piled high with sacks full of the fuel source rumble up and down the road that leads out of this district, heading towards Battambang city and beyond.
But elsewhere, like Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary and Botum Sakor National Park, clandestine operations burn wood in kilns under cover of night, environmentalists say.
According to Wildlife Alliance, areas under its jurisdiction in the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province used to be a hotbed of commercial charcoal production until the conservation NGO increased patrols about a decade ago.
In 2011, the organisation destroyed 778 charcoal kilns at just one patrol station at Phnom Oral, in the Eastern Cardamoms, where most of Phnom Penh’s charcoal reportedly originates.
“We put the station there because all the charcoal was coming from Oral and through Kirirom National Park and onto National Road 4 to Phnom Penh,” a Wildlife Alliance official says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We are not arresting them, we are just destroying the kilns.… [Locals] understand [now] it’s not a [viable] business. But people from other provinces still come and try to do it.”
In 2013, the group destroyed 416 illegal charcoal kilns across the Cardamoms.
A complex trade
Romain Joya, biomass energy product manager at GERES, says the charcoal sector’s informality and diversity mean it is very hard to quantify its effects and scale.
He says that charcoal producers mostly arrive late in the illegal logging chain, clearing trees that loggers who only want luxury wood and timber have left behind.
“It’s very complex. There are many, many different interactions between producers, the [buyers] and economic land concessions [ELCs].”
GERES says it believes charcoal makers mainly cause forest degradation rather than deforestation, with concessionaires and big illegal loggers responsible for the latter.
Chhim Savuth, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, agrees.
“There is not a lot of illegal logging related to charcoal production because most of them just go and collect from forests cleared by ELC companies, and they do not go to cut trees from protected areas,” he says.
But according to the Wildlife Alliance official, charcoal is “definitely having an impact” on deforestation.
“In Oral, you can see a huge amount of hectares – hundreds of hectares – gone because of charcoal.… They are eating the mountain slowly.”
According to the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which is implementing a project to reduce forest clearing for charcoal and the health impacts of its use, Cambodia’s forests are “shrinking at an alarming rate, partly as a result of solid fuel use”.
Only 8.9 per cent of villagers surveyed in Samlaut district, where MJP works, plan on replanting trees used for energy sources, while 43 per cent plan to log in protected forests when they run out of trees.
Forestry Administration head Chheng Kimsun acknowledges that the illegal industry is contributing to deforestation.
“Every activity which involves the destruction of forest products is contributing,” he says.
“If they were to cut from the state forest, it’s illegal, but if they cut around their farm or something like that, it’s OK.”
Kimsun admits illegal logging for charcoal in protected forests was difficult to stop.
“If they have no permit, we have to stop them, but we have inadequate staff. It’s very difficult to stop thousands.”
Reflecting the dwindling amount of forest, prices for charcoal have skyrocketed in recent years.
Ny Math, 31, a middleman who sells about 400kg to stallholders in Phnom Penh every day, says prices have more than doubled since he started.
“Ten years ago, the price was only 500 riel per kilogram, but now it has increased to 1,300 riel per kilogram, because the producers have difficulty finding the wood to make it with. The forests are less and less.”
A Kors Kralor district broker says that she used to pay 3,000 riel for a 50-60kg sack of charcoal, but now pays 17,000 riel.
“I know making charcoal leads to forest loss. I’m so sorry about that, but I have no choice.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA