How Politics Is Killing Cambodia’s Forests

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How Politics Is Killing Cambodia’s Forests

Political and economic calculations in Cambodia, China, and Vietnam are contributing to widespread illegal logging.

How Politics Is Killing Cambodia’s Forests
Credit: Paul Mason USAID/Cambodia/OGD

Cambodian forests, some of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, are vanishing fast as a result of the Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian political interests.

Cambodia has one of the largest deforestation rates in the world. Forest Trends, an influential organization with a mission to conserve forests and other ecosystems, reported in 2015 that Cambodia’s national forest cover had dropped to about 55 percent, down from 73 percent in 1993.

In May 2016, the Cambodian government took a bold step, declaring five new protected areas totaling about one million hectares of forest area. The success of this step primarily dependent on how well the government manages the area with the sole intention of forest conservation. So far, conservationists worldwide have shown varied levels of optimism.

Most of the wood of Cambodian forests ends up in China. As the largest global consumer, China has increased its rosewood imports by 1250 percent since 2000. The current market is worth more than $2.6 billion, double the value of a year earlier.

Vietnam is also a large consumer of Cambodia’s wood. Although recent figures show a decrease in the amount of timber exported to Vietnam since Phnom Penh crackdown on illegal timber exports, Cambodia remains the largest timber exporter to Vietnam.

There was some hope when Hun Sen created a committee specifically to curtail illegal logging. He expressed his firm commitment by promising to remove the governor of the southeastern province that serves as the main gateway for the logs if he and local district officials failed to curb the illegal activities.

In practice, however, only a small number of low level illegal loggers have been arrested, allegedly to secure the business interests of powerful people well connected to the government.

In Cambodia, a crackdown has been going on for years — not to stop the logging, but to stop the anti-illegal logging voices both inside the country as well as in the international community.

In 2013, an investigative report on illegal logging published by Global Witness was seized and blocked. A year earlier, in 2012, a Cambodian environmental campaigner, Chut Wutty, was shot dead. That same year, Hang Serei Oudom, a journalist who had exposed illegal logging, was found dead in the trunk of his car. The government failed to stop these murders from happening; in fact, people suspect government involvement in the killings.

Criticism and protests by the national and international communities have pushed the Cambodian government to restrict logging permits. However, widespread corruption gives opportunistic loggers the chance to continue their business.

The most valuable timber species, rosewood, is on the target list of loggers. Prices for the rich red timber have soared as high as $50,000 per cubic meter.

Global Witness, a London-based advocacy organization, reported that Cambodia has allowed the luxury timber business to flourish by relaxing legal safeguards. Influential local timber traders with close relations to the government have been issued licenses to extract luxury timber, even the rights to buy up illegally logged rosewood seized by authorities.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan defended the rights of these millionaire timber traders to the Financial Times, which paraphrased him as saying that “keeping the industry in the hands of one and two people made it easier for authorities to monitor it and collect taxes.” The secret intention behind this clearly entails the widespread corruption of Cambodian authorities in timber trading.

Domestic politics aside, curbing the illegal timber trade is very much subject to the will of the major importers, China and Vietnam. And Chinese and Vietnamese demand and control over Cambodian timber are not going to be neutralized anytime soon.

“China’s craze for chic furniture is driving a multimillion black market trade in illegal logs … across the Mekong,” Megan MacInnes, a campaigner from Global Witness, told Financial Times.

It’s not just Cambodia, either; the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported that China is the number one importer of illegal wood products from around the world.

In recent years, reforms by Chinese government reduced the percentage of illegal timber in the overall timber trade to 17 percent  in 2013, down from 26 percent in 2000. However, over the same period the actual volume of illegal imports doubled.

Tackling the illegal timber trade in China is very challenging as it will affect China’s export market. China is not only a major importer for its domestic market, but also a major processing hub. China exported wood based products worth $6.14 billion in 2015.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has its own interests in continuing the timber trade. Forest Trends notes that the government granted ELC (Economic Land Concessions) to national and foreign agribusiness companies, including many from Vietnam.

Under ELCs, the government has allocated 14 percent of Cambodia to businesses, with 80 percent of the land in protected parks. Concession areas include 1.1 million hectares of land for establishing rubber plantations, sugar farms, and pulp and paper plantations.

In an interview with the BBC Kerstin Canby from Forest Trends said, “This is illegal by Cambodia’s own laws and regulations.”

London-based advocacy group Global Witness accused Vietnamese rubber farms, backed by the World Bank and Germany’s Deutsche Bank, of heating up the land grabbing crisis. Vietnamese companies have been allotted large areas of land to establish rubber plantations in north and northeastern Cambodia. Under cover of these land concession agreements, these companies have been accused of massive logging activities.

Vietnam historically had a strong grip on the Cambodian government. After occupying Cambodia, Hanoi established as proxy administration in 1979 called the “People’s Republic of Kampuchea,” (PRK) governed by Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP). The current CPP government is often accused of still being under Vietnam’s thumb.

Therefore, despite recent tough stand by Hun Sen on curtailing illegal timber trading, the Cambodian government cannot act alone. And the influence of China and Vietnam doesn’t seem likely to dissipate anytime soon.

However, hope may come from another source. Many researchers suggest that private, market-driven conservation efforts are more effective than government policies. In this globalized world, consumers in distant international markets are becoming increasingly vital in reducing deforestation.

Consumers of tropical timber worldwide are responsible for boosting the political will to tolerate unsustainable timber extraction from these valuable forest areas. By now asking for “ethical wood” – wood that has been obtained through legal practices – consumers can exert pressure on the timber industry and retailers to adopt more environmentally and socially-friendly practices.

Moreover, consumers can reduce deforestation by using recycled products, and purchasing products certified by The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Rainforest Alliance. A research article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that FSC participation reduced deforestation successfully by 43 percent.

We, the consumers, cannot ignore our responsibility for forest destruction and the illegal timber trade around in the world, including developing countries like Cambodia.

Blaming Cambodian government is not the best way forward; at the same time, the mysterious reluctance of Phnom Penh to crack down on all illegal loggers is not acceptable either. Enormous international pressure can effectively curb the destruction of forests. This may be the only way left to protect Cambodia’s biodiversity treasures.

Abu SMG Kibria is a PhD Candidate in Ecosystem Services at Australian National University.