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Why care about Cambodia’s forests?

Bantengs in the jungle in Mondulkiri province in 2011. WWF/AFP
Bantengs in the jungle in Mondulkiri province in 2011. WWF/AFP

Why care about Cambodia’s forests?

by Nick Beresford and Moeko Saito-Jensen

Similar to many countries in the world, Cambodia’s forests are under mounting pressure. Trees are being cut down and replaced with cash crops like cashew nuts and cassava. Many trees disappear due to the need for large-scale economic development.

Compared to large-scale economic development, which promises massive economic gains and generates thousands of jobs, the value of forests can seem negligible. Add to that the sale of high-value timber, a lucrative billion-dollar business, and the short-term economic incentives to cut down trees and make space for other development seems obvious.

But imagine what would happen if all Cambodia’s forests were gone.

The answer is not only clear, but also alarming. Millions of the poorest people would suffer, and much of the progress these communities have made against poverty would be lost.

This is because about 80 percent of the country’s population reside in rural areas, and their daily lives and well-being are tied to the forest. Forests also play a crucial role in saturating and regulating flows of water and mitigating the damaging impacts of climate change.

Experiences of African countries demonstrate that the removal of forest cover increases incidents of flash floods and worsens the effects of droughts. Indeed, in 2016, Cambodia experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. Wells ran dry. Nearly 2.5 million people were affected due to lack of drinking water, and water for their farms.

Rural communities collect firewood for cooking, use a limited amount of timber for basic house construction, and collect mushrooms, honey and medicinal plants for their own use and to sell in markets.

A majority of these rural populations practise rain-fed agriculture. If there is not enough rain, the forests act as a safety net. They earn income by making items from forest products.

Economic gains from selling timber will be more than negated by increasing damages due to climate change. Moreover, the ongoing construction of hydropower dams requires the felling of huge tracts of forests to make space in upstream watersheds.

A study made by the HDR and DHI (2015) on the influence of dams on river fisheries in the Mekong region predicts that they will significantly affect river ecosystems by reducing sediment flows downstream and consequently reduce fish populations by up to 50 percent.

Given that fish contribute with more than 60 percent of rural protein intake (World Fish, 2016), the generation of electricity is likely to come at high cost to food security.

This highlights that even over relatively short periods of time, the social, ecological and economic costs of deforestation are going to be severe. At the sharp end, rural people whose livelihoods are tied to forests will be the first to suffer, but the cost will eventually be borne by generations of Cambodians, whether they live in the city or the countryside.

So, what can be done to save Cambodia’s forests?

To tackle the ongoing challenges, the Ministry of Environment has begun implementing an environmental governance reform that categorised more than 7 million hectares (roughly 40 percent of the country) as protected landscape and brought additional rangers to protect forests.

This is certainly a crucial step towards sustaining forests for the future, as is also demonstrated by the recent decline in deforestation rates in Cambodia for the period between 2014 and 2016.

Yet, more needs to be done, something that is also acknowledged both by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery.

The 7-million-plus hectares of protected landscapes are now managed by just 1,260 rangers. The math on that is staggering, no single person can effectively monitor more than 5,000 hectares of land. What is needed is the activation of forest communities themselves, to protect their forests. Their engagement is crucial to the long-term goal of making Cambodian forests sustainable.

International experience, for example, from Nepal shows that participation of forest communities in maintaining forests is the most effective way of preventing illegal activities. It also shows that when forest communities take an active interest in protecting forests, they also make use of the forest themselves, for instance, by sustainable harvesting and selling of forest products.

At present, less than 10 percent of Cambodia’s forests and protected areas are under community management. Further, while economic concessions are typically given 50 years of management rights, community leases are given for 15 years (eg, Community Forestry and Community Protected Areas).

Among other things, the new Environmental Code drafted by the Ministry of Environment aims to introduce new measures of collaborative management, to leverage the power of communities and provide them with opportunities for engaging in long-term sustainable management of forests and protected areas.

The new national Production Forest Strategic Plan (2018-2032) led by the Forestry Administration will also create new opportunities for communities to engage in sustainable production of forest products.

These measures must be coupled with effective law enforcement. More importantly, they must also be implemented in a manner that fully and adequately supports communities in sustainable forest management.

Nick Beresford is the country director and Moeko Saito-Jensen is the policy specialist at United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia.

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