Along the roadside near the village of Thnal Tateung, 28 km from Phnom Penh, children
scramble over freshly cut palm trees. The long, curving tree trunks wait by the roadside
to be picked up and cut into timber. It is not an uncommon sight.
The traditional view of rural life, left, in this painting by Mok Ravy in the Sok Sabay Cambodia Souvenir Shop near the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
In certain provinces over the last two years, the number of palm trees, a symbol
of Cambodian culture, has dramatically declined. Even a new government order prohibiting
the logging has not slowed the practice by many rural farmers.
They have clandestinely cut down the palm trees for the wood to help make ends meet.
The deteriorating situation prompted the government to issue an order on September
5 that banned the logging of palm trees for sale.
The circular, issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF),
said farmers were "cutting down palm trees to sell them... where construction
wood is scarce and for sale in foreign countries". It directed Forestry officials
to prohibit the transport of palm trees between provinces, noting their "economic,
historic and cultural advantages".
MAFF has encouraged farmers to plant new trees on empty lands where there are few
and cooperate with the Ministry to make an inventory of existing palm trees to monitor
The strong measures enacted by the government illustrate the tree's significance
to Cambodia. The sugar palm tree, known as deum tnoat in Khmer, has played a central
role in Khmer culture. Palm trees have been abundant since long before the height
of Khmer civilization during the Angkorian period.
By processing the palm fruits, farmers can make wine, sugar, and even preserves.
The leaves and bark are also used to make mats, rope, hats and fans. Most visibly,
the palm frond leaves are folded together to thatch watertight roofs and the tree
trunks are used to make furniture and build houses.
But the mass logging of palm trees could mean the loss of those livelihoods for farmers.
At least 80 percent of the population depends on rural livelihoods, including palm
sugar production and the myriad other products derived from the trees, which take
between five and ten years to mature.
But the reality can be seen below: logged palm trees scattered along the road near the Thnal Tateung village on the road to Takeo.
But farmers are cutting them down to supplement shrinking supplies of local lumber
and, more recently, to sell to Vietnam for profit, government officials say.
Chean Van Han, chief of the plant protection and phyto-sanitary office at MAFF, says
the illegal tree felling has increased since there was a logging moratorium two years
ago. The Ministry of Commerce (MoC) estimates there are about two million palm trees
Most of the logged palm trees come from Kampong Speu province. They are then sent
to the province of Svay Rieng-a hot spot for illegal trade and smuggling, say local
The logging is most serious in those provinces where palm trees have become scarce.
In Takeo, a province south of Phnom Penh, many palm trees have been removed.
Along National Road 3, palm tree stumps line the highway. The land is carpeted with
rice paddies, but only a handful of the distinctive trees grow in the rice fields.
In Kraing Khna Khang Koeut village, in Takeo province, Kea Nop, 30, has been selling
palm trees for a year. He sells construction materials, including palm lumber and
the tough, dried fronds of the tree. He says he gets his supply of wood from passing
farmers each morning. He sells the planks, considered stronger and more resistant
to termites than most kinds of wood, for about 1,500 riel per meter. His buyers are
mostly local residents.
"They come and buy the logs when they need them," says Nop.
But, at the moment, he says, he can't sell a lot of them. It's not just that demand
has dropped off, but fewer farmers have come to sell the dwindling palm trees.
The Ministry of Commerce (MoC) is urging farmers to obey the logging ban and use
the trees in more sustainable ways.
Sok Siphana, secretary of state at MoC, says he is trying to make use of this national
"The palm tree is our national soul, it is very symbolic," says Siphana,
who led the negotiations to gain Cambodia's acceptance into the World Trade Organization
this year. "In every painting, artists paint at least one palm tree in the background."
He envisions a thriving trade in palm products.
"I want to bring a new way of thinking and have an open door policy," he
says, commenting on the potential for new trade.
Cambodia already exports small amounts of palm wine and liquor to France. A bottle
costs about $19 abroad. Dried fruits made with palm tree sugar are also exported
to France, where the exotic products find a market. A French-owned company called
Confirel produces the goods near Pochentong airport.
"If I can help develop this industry then I think we can profit from this fruit,"
China has also agreed to import 297 palm products this year and an exhibition of
palm products is scheduled in Japan in the near future, says Pech Sokpo, chief of
trade promotion section at the MoC.
But he says the bounty of palm trees is increasingly threatened by the illegal export
of the trees to Vietnam.
In Takeo province, rows of open-air stores sell palm trees and other kinds of timber
along National Road 3. A driver who guided a Post reporter around the province says
most of the palm trees are cut illegally.
"I see trucks carrying palm tree logs around midnight or one o'clock in the
morning on this road taking them to Vietnam," he says.
But the government says its determined to protect the palm trees and help reduce
poverty in the countryside.
"The people are poor so they want to cut the palm trees," says Sokpo. "But
palm trees are the symbol of Cambodia. Everything on a palm tree is useful."