Connect to share and comment

Cambodia: shrinking forests breed violence

Three activists and villagers have died this year because of logging and land grabbing in Cambodia.

smuggle back rosewood. Many villagers do not return, as Thai border guards have been quick to gun down smugglers on first sight. Scores have died in recent years.

“At least 31 villagers were killed from early this year until September. The number increased from 16 deaths in the whole of last year,” said Srey Naren, Adhoc coordinator in the border province Oddar Meanchey.

On Nov 3, three Cambodians were shot dead by Thai soldiers in Trat province, on the border with Cambodia’s Battambang province, after they were caught logging rosewood, according to media reports.

“The authorities have limited ability to stop it since most of the traders are powerful people,” he said. “Some of them are generals.” The villagers are persuaded to risk their lives by traders who offer up to $1,500 per cubic meter of smuggled rosewood, which can be sold on for $5,000 in the capital Phnom Penh, from where it goes to neighboring Vietnam and eventually China, according to Naren.

While the booming rosewood trade has emboldened criminal logging rings, the single biggest threat to Cambodian forests has been the rapid increase in agro-industrial estates for crops such as rubber. The government has long touted investment in plantations as an important rural development model, but in recent years the number of approved concessions has jumped, and firms now control about 2.1 million hectares of land, according to research by local rights group Licadho.

The concessions are highly controversial, as companies are accused of human rights violations and large-scale land grabbing in farming communities. In May, the government announced a moratorium on plantations, but rights groups say it is filled with loopholes.

The spread of concessions has lead to massive deforestation as many are allocated in the dense forests of southwest and northeast Cambodia. Increasingly, plantations are also being approved in national parks, where about 400,000 hectare — or 15 percent of Cambodia’s protected dry land forest — has been lost since 2010, according to Licadho.

Ministry of Environment officials have insisted that only “degraded forest” on the fringes of parks is being converted, but in practice, companies are allowed to clear-cut and sell pristine parts of protected forest, ostensibly to develop the areas into plantations. In central Cambodia for instance, Boeng Per wildlife sanctuary lost 22 percent of its forest cover, located in its untouched core, while in Ratanakkiri, firms were granted 16 percent of Virachey park, mostly unspoiled hillside forest on its eastern border.

Activists risk fighting back 

WWF Cambodia director Seng Teak said in March that the group was “extremely concerned about the recent approval of large-scale concessions in protected areas,” which he noted were approved without conducting prior environmental impact assessments. The areas, Teak warned, “are the last strongholds for many species, such as tigers and elephants, and without them these populations will be put at risk.”

Some fear recent developments signal a complete collapse of Cambodia’s forest protection system. “The floodgates are open. In the past, [authorities] were careful not to put these concessions in protected areas…now they deliberately target them,” said Marcus Hardtke, a German environmental activist who has worked in Cambodia since 1998.

According to activists, the companies use their close ties to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to obtain approval for plantations in forest areas, in order to harvest massive stocks of mid-value tropical hardwood. The timber fetches several hundred dollars per cubic meter and is sold in neighboring Vietnam, which is an international hub for indoor and outdoor wooden furniture production.

“It’s just a timber grab; sometimes [companies] don’t even plant rubber or cassava” after forest clearing, Hardtke said, adding that many firms also buy up wood logged outside their concession, which they transport out under the cover of their license, effectively laundering the illegal timber.

As loggers race to grab a share of the forests, they are accused of paying off local authorities and hiring state security forces to quash local dissent. With opposition growing among communities and activists, violent confrontations over forest losses are becoming frequent.

Hardtke’s friend Chut Wutty, with whom he ran the Natural Resources Protection Group, was investigating a company suspected of buying timber from outside its concession in Koh Kong province, when he was stopped on a public road by military police and killed because he refused to hand over his camera.

“What we have now, is people being shot for looking at things or taking photos, by government soldiers [who are] hired as mercenaries by the timber mafia,” Hardtke said. “It’s a complete breakdown of the rule of law.”

Cambodia’s impoverished rural population, which represents about 70 percent of its 14 million inhabitants, has been hit hard by the forest losses, as most subsist on small-scale farming and collecting food and non-timber products from the rich tropical woodlands. Indigenous groups are most dependent on the forest, which is also the abode of the local spirits of the animist tribes.

“Most tell me that they fear they will lose their land, their homes, their forest and their culture, and what is the future for the children?” said Sao Vansey, director of the Indigenous Community Support Organization. 

Faced with worsening forest devastation and government inaction, local activism has increased markedly and last year dozens of communities across Cambodia began organizing their own jungle patrols. These have since stopped many illegal logging crews and seized numerous chainsaws and thousands of cubic meters of timber, while protests against plantations in forest are rising.

This grassroots movement is centered on Prey Lang, a unique 650,000-hectare lowland evergreen forest in central Cambodia with a 135,000-hectare pristine northern core, where threatened species like the Asian elephant, clouded leopard and pileated gibbon roam.

Rampant illegal logging, mining and plantation concessions are devastating Prey Lang, along with the livelihoods of roughly 200,000 local people. Most are indigenous Kuy, who gain income from tapping forest trees for resin that can be sold to make varnish and paints. Resin trees are protected under Cambodian law, but about 250,000 trees in Prey Lang were cut in recent years without any consultation or compensation for affected villagers, according to the Prey Lang People’s Network, a local NGO.

During a visit to Prey Lang early this year, Kuy villager Chum Yin, 27, said his community in Kampong Thom province’s Sandan district had been forced to stand up against logging after it threatened to destroy local incomes. “After the loggers arrived, it badly affected villagers’ livelihoods,” he said. “In my village, 17 families lost all their resin trees.”

Yin and other Kuy tribesmen in the area began holding regular forest patrols in groups of about 30 villagers. “When we see forest crime, we spread out and surround the loggers,” he said.  “We confiscate the chainsaws and burn them along with the timber. The loggers … we let go, because they are just hired by timber traders, like senior officials and military police officers.”

Yin accepts that he is taking a risk by interfering with the timber trade. He said he had already defied a direct warning late last year when local officials told him to end the patrols. “They threatened to arrest or shoot me, but I am not scared of their threats because I don’t do anything illegal,” Yin said. “Our network is only here to prevent forest clearing.”