Deforestation under the spotlight in Cambodia

A legal battle between a logging tycoon and a local activist group is once again highlighting the issue of Cambodia's depleting forests and questions over who benefits - locals, or large companies associated with the well connected.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy jumped on the issue last week, visiting Prey Lang forest in Kampong Thom province and saying that he was "speechless" upon seeing the destruction on a 60 sq km plot of land. The land concession was granted to a Vietnamese company to grow rubber.

Separate studies released in recent weeks show that Cambodia is seeing an alarming loss of forests - driven mostly by logging and conversion to plantations.

The rubber industry is a key driver of the conversion. A Global Witness report in May concluded that by the end of last year, 2.6 million ha of land in Cambodia had been leased to private companies, of which 1.2 million ha was for growing rubber. A series of maps using Nasa images, released this month by the local non-government organisation Open Development Cambodia (ODC), shows that Cambodia's forest cover has fallen from around 72 per cent in 1973 to about 46 per cent this year.

The figure includes tree plantations. In reality, "dense forest" cover has fallen to less than 11 per cent this year, ODC claims.

The study was released just weeks after researchers at the University of Maryland said their own study showed that Cambodia has the fifth-fastest deforestation rate in the world. Only Malaysia, Paraguay, Indonesia and Guatemala had higher rates of deforestation over the same period. Cambodia has lost 7 per cent of its forest cover over the past 12 years, the researchers said.

The concession in Cambodia's Prey Lang forest, which Mr Rainsy visited, is only the tip of an iceberg of deforestation, Cambodian activists say.

In an example of how laws are often ignored, logging was found to be rampant last month even in a protected area, the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary in Ratanakiri province. Locals and officials discovered thousands of logs in a saw mill, apparently from the 250,000ha sanctuary.

In the same province last week, Cambodia Daily reporters visiting Virachey National Park saw logs and cut wood being openly transported out of the protected forest.

One tycoon, Mr Try Pheap, has come under the spotlight.

Mr Try, who has interests in mines and a casino, paid the government around US$3.4 million (S$4.3 million) this year for exclusive rights to collect nearly 5,000 cubic meters of confiscated luxury timber.

But he has been involved in controversies over land before.

In a report last month, the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF), a non-government organisation, alleged that Mr Try was in possession of land concessions totalling around 70,000ha - about seven times the limit allowed under Cambodian law.

The concessions are in the names of 15 companies, and also in the name of Mr Try's wife Mao Mom, the report alleged.

"The reason to focus only on Try Pheap's companies," the organisation said, "is to urge the government to take action and show the truth behind why our forests are disappearing."

In the 50-page report, the CHRTF also said that the timber tycoon helped to finance the ruling Cambodian People's Party's campaign in the last election to the tune of some US$1 million.

Media reports have subsequently quoted locals as saying that illegal loggers were claiming to work for Mr Try's companies.

But Mr Try has hit back, filing a defamation complaint against two people quoted in the CHRTF report. One of them is a local official from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Those who have spoken up against the powerful vested interests in logging and land conversion do so at great personal risk.

In September last year, journalist Hang Serei Oudom, who was investigating illegal logging, was found battered to death in the trunk of his car in Ratanakiri province.

Earlier in April last year, Mr Chut Wutty, an environmentalist who was critical of the military's alleged role in illegal logging, was shot dead in Koh Kong province.

Last month, a group of five non-government organisations at a press conference in Phnom Penh told journalists that if the government did not take any action, they would release the names of "at least 100 individuals" including police officers, whom they said were complicit in illegal logging.

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a moratorium on economic land concessions last year, saying that their human costs - in terms of displaced people - had become too high.

Earlier, in 2002, the Premier announced a moratorium on logging. Both moratoriums are openly flouted by powerful and well-connected businessmen, critics say.

In a phone interview, however, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan insisted that land clearing for agro-industries was managed under strict national policies.

"It is a balance between agro-industries, maintaining forest cover to combat climate change and the regeneration of forests," he said.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.