The US embassy in Cambodia announced an end to assistance to government entities under the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Greening Prey Lang project.
This assistance will instead be redirected to various other stakeholders concerned with the conservation of Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.
The embassy said although Cambodia had made some important strides in environmental protection, the US had repeatedly expressed concerns about persistently high deforestation rates in protected areas, particularly in the sanctuary where USAID had previously invested significant resources.
A senior Ministry of Environment official, however, countered the claim, saying that only small-scale offences remained in Prey Lang.
In a statement, the embassy said: “We have urged increased cooperation between the Cambodian government and local communities and civil society organisations to find solutions to protect Prey Lang and the natural heritage of the Kingdom for the benefit of all Cambodians and the world.”
Unfortunately, it said, the situation is worsening. Since 2016, despite USAID’s support for increased ranger patrols, training of law enforcement and development of a national protected area management system, the Prey Lang sanctuary has lost approximately 38,000ha of forest, or nearly nine per cent of its forest cover.
The embassy said well-documented illegal logging continues in and around the sanctuary and Cambodian authorities have not adequately prosecuted wildlife crimes or put a stop to these illicit activities.
It alleged that the government continued to silence and target local communities and their civil society partners who are justifiably concerned about the loss of their natural resources.
“As a result of these unresolved concerns, the United States is ending assistance to government entities under the USAID Greening Prey Lang project.
“This US assistance will instead be redirected to support civil society, the private sector and local efforts to improve livelihoods and expand climate sensitive agriculture,” the statement said.
The US, it noted, will continue to engage with the Cambodian government on climate change and environmental issues of mutual and global concern, including through the Mekong-US Partnership.
“As we celebrate World Environment Day this month, we are reminded that effective environmental management requires transparent and accountable governance.
“The United States affirms the indispensable roles that freedom of expression, peaceful protest, and government accountability to citizens play in maintaining strong democratic practices in all development sectors, including the protection of the Kingdom’s valuable natural resources,” the statement said.
Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra told The Post on June 17 that the end to the project at this time would give the ministry an opportunity to show that its officials are capable of performing its roles and duties by protecting and conserving natural resources based on the laws currently in force.
He added that the ministry would continue its missions in a responsible manner and professionally manage and conserve the Prey Lang sanctuary and other natural protected areas in Cambodia for the benefit of future generations.
“We respect the decision by this development partner and we are thankful for contributions they have made to Cambodia to provide technical assistance, protect and conserve natural resources in the Prey Lang area.
“Both sides have agreed to divert this funding to other opportunities for cooperation in order to continue serving the best interests of the Cambodian people,” he said.
Pheaktra claimed that large-scale natural resource offences in Prey Lang and other natural protected areas no longer occurred, save for small-scale offences which he said was still a concern to address. He said the ministry and police forces would continue to enforce the law and work to prevent such incidents.
“With full peace having been achieved, Cambodia now has the opportunity to fully concentrate on conserving its natural resources,” he said.
Pheaktra noted that with better protection and conservation, Cambodia had successfully sold carbon credits to the voluntary market abroad. Community member livelihood conditions had begun to improve as links to natural or eco-tourism were forged and new choices for occupations were created.
San Mala, advocacy officer of Forest Defenders Project at Cambodia Youth Network and environmental activist, told The Post on June 17 that the decision was a difficult one, but the embassy must do this to respond to the calls made by communities, activists and civil society in Cambodia.
Mala claimed that the ministry had imposed restrictions on and prevented their groups from patrolling the forest and ignored their reports of logging violations.
“This Greening Prey Lang Project has so far been implemented jointly by the ministry and USAID staff, with communities and activists excluded. Now the environment ministry should reconsider allowing activists, communities and civil society to carry out some of their work in the Prey Lang area,” he said.