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WWF mapping project shows Mondulkiri forest in danger

People attend a presentation yesterday in central Phnom Penh of the findings from the InVEST pilot program in Mondulkiri province. WWF
People attend a presentation yesterday in central Phnom Penh of the findings from the InVEST pilot program in Mondulkiri province. WWF

WWF mapping project shows Mondulkiri forest in danger

A sophisticated new environmental analysis software package has painted a grim picture of Mondulkiri province’s future environmental health.

Presented and debated in Phnom Penh yesterday, the WWF-led project, dubbed InVEST, short for Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs, predicts that by 2030, Mondulkiri, one of the last remaining bastions of forest in Cambodia, will face a 66 per cent reduction in forest cover.

The province would also see a 33 per cent reduction in carbon storage, as well as a 62 per cent loss of non-timber forest products such as mushrooms, bamboo and honey, if deforestation continues at its current rate.

InVEST allows users to “make maps that show how the benefits people get from nature are distributed over land and water”, according to WWF-US senior scientist Nirmal Bhagabati, a key figure behind the software.

It has been used since 2013 as part of a pilot program run by provincial authorities in Mondulkiri, where forest cover, which WWF estimates makes up 90 per cent of land there, has been slowly eaten away by increased economic land concessions (ELCs).

The software is designed to interpret a variety of environmental data through a series of developmental “scenarios” then produce detailed hypothetical maps from the data.

Issues that InVEST can predict and map for a given environment range from carbon sequestration to soil erosion to nutrient retention in water sources.

“What we’re promoting [with InVEST] is a vision where you have a balance of development and environmental conservation,” said Bhagabati, adding that he hoped the software would be adopted nationwide but that it had not yet been.

WWF-Cambodia spokesman Chakrey Un said the organisation expected the tool would help the government manage land in a fashion that was more considerate of long-term environmental effects.

“[As it is now] when the government gives a land concession, they just give it out without making an environmental assessment of the area. This tool provides knowledge on whether an area can be developed sustainably,” he said. InVEST is already used by public and private actors globally, including in Myanmar, Vietnam, Kenya, Colombia, China and the US.

The Mondulkiri pilot programme was implemented by WWF-Cambodia with funding and assistance from USAID, Winrock International and the EU. Researchers from the Royal University of Phnom Penh collected most of the data used.

Chheng Kimsun, director of the Forestry Administration, said that while he had not heard of the software, he was confident in government satellite imagery data collected in five-yearly forest cover reports.

“Everyone knows that with satellite imagery you can see everywhere,” he said.

Kimsun stressed the administration’s plan to increase forest cover in Cambodia to 60 per cent by 2029, though the government has been accused of skewing data from its forest regeneration efforts by including rubber plantations and farmland as reforested land.

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