If you live in or close to a city, chances are you don’t venture much into a forest. This is the case for most people in the world today.

Fifty per cent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, says the UN. It projects that the urban population will rise to 68 per cent by 2050.

At 8.4 per cent, Cambodia’s annual rate of urbanisation is one of the fastest in the world, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Yet nearly 80 per cent of the country’s population lives in rural areas, and many of them depend heavily on forests.

So how the country manages and maintains its forests is crucial for the wellbeing of its people.

Indeed, it could serve as a model for the world. In recent years, however, forest cover has fallen in Cambodia and across the world, putting the environment in a precarious position.

Across the world, major forests are on fire. The world’s largest tropical forests, in the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia, are all burning. Wildfires have broken out in forests in Alaska, Russia and Australia. As some of these fires burn out of control, they further undermine efforts to stop, or even mitigate, global warming.

Climate change is no longer a distant reality for Cambodia. Every year, risks are increasing.

For several years the country has faced unusually heavy floods and extended periods of drought.

As temperatures rise, risks to livelihoods increase, especially for rural communities that depend on rainfall for agriculture.

A recent report by the National Council for Sustainable Development and the Ministry of Economy and Finance, supported by the EU, Sweden and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) predicts that rising temperatures will lower labour productivity, as well as total GDP, by as much as 10 per cent by 2050.

UNDP Cambodia has just released its Human Development Report 2019: Sustaining Natural Resources for All.

This stresses the incredible value of nature-based solutions that benefit Cambodia, as well as the world.

The value of natural resources in Cambodia, especially forests, goes far beyond climate change mitigation. In rural areas, trees provide shelter, energy, food, medicine and income opportunities for many people. Timber is used for house construction, wood is fuel for daily cooking, while many plants are used for medicinal purposes.

Forests are also a source of the charcoal, bamboo, rattan, honey and resin sold to make a living.

Forests regulate water flows, mitigate the negative impacts of floods and droughts, they are home for animals and plants, and are also spiritual sanctuaries. So maintaining healthy, strong forests is intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of the Cambodian people and to the country’s plant and animal life.

In terms of human development, Cambodia has performed very well, having recently graduated to the status of a lower-middle income country.

Cambodia’s GDP continues to increase by more than seven per cent annually, and this growth has been accompanied by significant improvements in life expectancy and education.

Towards a better future

Today, more rural communities than ever before have roads, energy, revitalised public services and new economic and employment opportunities.

However, this intensive development has also put growing pressure on natural resources. Forest cover has decreased by 10 per cent, from 57 per cent to 47 per cent between 2010 and 2018. Short-term economic gains from the extraction and use of natural resources pale in significance against the medium and long-term consequences of degraded ecosystems, which may adversely impact the Cambodian people, especially the vulnerable rural populations that rely on them most.

But Cambodia is uniquely placed to showcase that economic growth can go hand in hand with sustaining natural resources for all.

To shift to fully sustainable man-agement, a set of cross-cutting issues needs to be addressed.

First, it is crucial to promote integrated land use planning by considering both costs and benefits, as well as the competing needs for different land uses.

This requires the clear demarcation of areas that are reserved for conservation and those available for economic and livelihood activities.

The proliferation of cheap and unsustainably sourced natural products as well as complex regulatory requirements discourage both communities and industries from pursuing sustainable modes of production.

This will have to change.

To make it possible for sustainable products to compete, effective law enforcement against illegally sourced products is necessary. This will require intensive and committed collaboration between enforcement agencies and affected communities.

It is also crucial to have regulatory measures to accelerate sustainable production.

These measures must ensure secure property rights, so both local communities and the private sector see the tangible benefits of investing time and money for long-term sustainable natural resource management.

An enabling environment is needed to boost economic returns for sustainable products.

This can be done by introducing efficient equipment for processing and packaging, improving market information about demand, quality of products and supply, and by linking producers directly with consumers and reducing transaction costs, for example, by using mobile apps. Finally, it is important to further empower rural communities to be custodians of Cambodia’s natural resources.

If communities are entrusted to meet their own needs by working for a sustainable future, they will be able to better protect the finite and increasingly fragile natural resources of the nation.

In the long run, this will bring prosperity to the people of Cambodia and protect its invaluable biodiversity.

Valerie Cliff, Dr Moeko Saito Jensen and Dr Richard Marshall

Valerie Cliff is Deputy Assistant Administrator and Officer-in-Charge at the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, and the Director of the UN Development Programme’s Bangkok Regional Hub. Dr Moeko Saito Jensen is an Environmental Policy Specialist at UNDP Cambodia. Dr Richard Marshall is Country Economist at UNDP Cambodia.