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US Urges Preservation of ‘Incredible Biodiversity’ in Cambodian Forest

FILE - Cambodian villagers with their faces painted to resemble the forest people from the film 'Avatar' pray during a rally against the destruction of the Prey Lang forest in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Aug. 18, 2011.
FILE - Cambodian villagers with their faces painted to resemble the forest people from the film 'Avatar' pray during a rally against the destruction of the Prey Lang forest in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Aug. 18, 2011.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh says it is concerned about deforestation in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, where five environmental activists were detained for documenting illegal logging in February.

Ambassador Patrick W. Murphy and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Cambodia Mission Director Veena Reddy each met with the country's top environmental official in separate meetings last year to discuss deforestation and restrictions faced by patrol groups that monitor illegal logging in the sanctuary.

“The U.S. government will continue to urge that action be taken to cease all illegal logging and preserve the incredible biodiversity of Prey Lang and other sanctuaries,” the embassy said in a statement released last week.

The Prey Lang forest spans four Cambodian provinces and was marked by severe deforestation in 2016, the year the government classified it as a wildlife sanctuary. Prey Lang, one of the last lowland evergreen forests in Southeast Asia, is significant for what the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calls “charismatic diversity.”

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“Among the impressive large vertebrates are the Indo-Pacific region’s largest herbivore, the Asian elephant, and largest carnivore, the tiger,” says the WWF website. Other species include the critically endangered Javan rhinoceros.

Well diversified

The sanctuary, which spans multiple provinces, includes large expanses of intact habitat that can support these species, but the WWF says “plans to log Cambodia’s forests, where most of the large habitat blocks lie, will result in large-scale habitat loss and fragmentation.”

USAID established the $21 million Greening Prey Lang project in 2018 to promote jobs, protect the sanctuary’s biodiversity and aid forest patrols. But the project has come under criticism for aligning with the Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment, which has been accused of turning a blind eye to rampant deforestation.

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The recent embassy statement said USAID provided the ministry with documentation of illegal logging, which triggered Cambodian-led “investigations by relevant government authorities.”

“Forest loss in Prey Lang, and throughout the country, is linked to several factors, including weak law enforcement and opaque governance systems,” the statement read.

The embassy also said the U.S. had assisted local communities, including the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) patrol group, in collaboration with environmental ministry officials.

But Cambodian authorities banned PLCN from entering the forest last year when its members, along with local civil society groups and environmental activists, attempted to conduct a Buddhist tree blessing ceremony to protect the forest.

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Environmental ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said PLCN was an unregistered entity.

A PLCN report issued in February alleges that USAID's collaboration with the ministry implicitly sanctions government "incrimination" of PLCN-led patrol groups.

"Through its multimillion-dollar support to the Ministry of Environment and exclusion of PLCN from forest protection activities, USAID and its implementing partner Tetra Tech are supporting a monopoly on 'forest protection' under [Cambodia's] Ministry of Environment," says the PLCN report. "By silently approving the intimidation and de-legitimization of PLCN, USAID and Tetra Tech are sabotaging efforts of existing local and indigenous grassroots groups to conduct crucial forest monitoring."

“The majority of [Greening Prey Lang]’s activities directly benefit communities and non-governmental organizations in conservation efforts and no funding is provided through government systems. We continue to work directly with the PLCN and the MOE to support a dialogue so that they can work together on the shared goal of protecting Prey Lang,” USAID said in a statement.

“The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) works to address these challenges by improving technical capacity at all levels, promoting transparency and accountability, supporting active community engagement, and providing alternative livelihoods,” the statement said.

Last month, Cambodian environmental ministry rangers detained five forest activists — including Goldman Environmental Prize 2016 winner Ouch Leng — for documenting illegal logging in Kratie province.

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Ouch Leng, whose activism has also been honored by the Asia Society, earned international recognition in 2017 for exposing corruption in land deals that prompted Phnom Penh to cancel dozens of property concessions covering some 220,000 acres of forest.

Ouch Leng's February arrest came less than a year after a three-day detention in March 2020, which ended when authorities asked him to stop patrolling temporarily and register his entity, Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, (CHRTF) with the government.

U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier did not answer specific questions sent by VOA Khmer, instead referring reporters to the statement.

Deforestation questions

According to a University of Maryland Global Forest Change dataset, Prey Lang lost about 7,500 hectares of forest cover in 2019, the most since 2016, when the forested area was depleted by close to 11,000 hectares.

The deforestation alerts for 2020 and 2021 show little improvement and widespread forest clearings. According to the Goldman Environmental Foundation, while 80% of Cambodians depend on forests for their survival, the country ranks fifth globally in deforestation. Stripping the land is fueled by what the Goldman Foundation called “voracious demand” for luxury furniture in China.

In response to the U.S. Embassy statement, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheaktra on March 9 said the government has “a high commitment” to protecting the Prey Lang reserve.

The ministry, he added, urged the U.S. Embassy and other development partners to work with groups “legally registered,” calling the PLCN an illegal body.

The environment ministry also said that Ouch Leng’s group remains unregistered — dismissing any evidence of deforestation provided by him and other activists.

“Ministry of Environment urges and encourages donors and development partners to continue to support only NGOs or associations registered legally to encourage law-abiding citizens,” the spokesperson said.

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Cambodia’s ability to protect and conserve natural resources had improved over the past 10 years, he added, stating that the country “no longer had large-scale deforestation.”

Seventy protected forest areas comprise an estimated 7.3 million hectares or 41% of Cambodia’s land cover, according to the country's environmental ministry. Open Development Cambodia says the country's total forest cover decreased from approximately 72% in 1973 to 48% in 2014, while dense forest decreased from 42% to 16% over the same period.

On March 5 group of 110 international academics, human rights monitors, and conservationists sent an open letter to Minister of Environment Say Samal and USAID’s Reddy asking for immediate action to stop “the extreme extraction of forest resources.”

They said logging trucks continued to exit the forest regularly, driving past stations monitored by environmental ministry rangers.

USAID's Cambodia profile says deforestation “not only threatens biodiversity ... [but has] devastating effects of increasing flooding and erosion in the Mekong River basin, endangering livelihoods from fishing and rice cultivation, and reducing water storage and availability in the dry season.”

The U.S. headquartered Rainforest Alliance says deforestation is linked to climate change because trees capture greenhouse gases such carbon dioxide, preventing them from accumulating in the atmosphere and warming surface temperatures worldwide.

When trees are cut down, their stored carbons are released into the atmosphere, accounting for 10% of warming emissions worldwide, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Cambodian businessman Try Pheap and a Cambodian military figure, Gen. Kun Kim, have been linked to illegal logging and both have been sanctioned by the U.S.

According to USAID, 80% of Cambodians live in rural areas, and the livelihoods of 65% of them are dependent on forest resources that support the local economy and ensure food security. This means rural Cambodians are especially hard-hit by illegal deforestation, which can deprive them of income, food and the materials needed for shelter and fuel.

In Prey Lang, for example, deforestation means indigenous collectors can no longer tap chboh trees for resin, an essential ingredient in varnish, sealing wax for waterproofing boats, waterproofing products, and torches for lighting houses in the village.

Sok Phloak, a PLCN representative in Kampong Thom province, said community members should be allowed to patrol the forest to prevent increased deforestation.

“We are going to lose it if we don’t have people to protect the forests,” he said. “We love these forests, which belong to not only the government but also us.”

Khem Sokhy, a PLCN member in Preah Vihear province, said it was counterintuitive for the government to ban patrol groups while claiming that it wants to protect the Prey Lang forest.

“If the government has the clear will to protect the forests, they must not ban the protectors who support the government’s intentions,” he said.

This story originated in VOA's Khmer Service.