(Keyla Beebe is a Pulitzer Center Student Fellow from Guilford College.)
In the U.S., forest rangers are strong protectors of the environment, thought of as heroes. In Cambodia, rangers of the Ministry of the Environment (MoE) make no attempt to hide the stockpiles of illegal timber surrounding their house.
Back at MoE headquarters in Phnom Penh the power flickers on and off as Deputy Director of the Department of Environmental Education Nong Kim explains the new government program to ensure environmental protection.
For context, 15 percent of the land in the U.S. is highly protected, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Another 18 percent is permanently protected but allows for extractive uses such as logging and mining. In Cambodia, 18 percent of land is protected but not under the same conditions as in the U.S.
To try and guarantee forest protection, the MoE created a new program combining four sectors, the government, private investors, sustainability, and community zones. Villagers living in protected areas are allotted land to grow crops and sustain their livelihood.
Private investors are allowed to participate in economic land concessions (ELCs). These investors are given an area of land where they can cut the trees and make a plantation. The idea is that the investors will protect an internal area in exchange for the surrounding ELCs.
There is no clear data on how much of Cambodia’s protected areas is now held by private investors as ELCs. However, the Phnom Penh Post recently reported that since January 1, 2012, the government has granted about 65,000 hectares (160,618 acres) of land in wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and on public reserves to public companies for development.
This system has benefits: It can provide jobs and infrastructure, helping the local community. Yet it is not always executed fairly.
In regards to community protests, Kim said that “local people don’t understand the future vision and they look too short term.”
Forest resources play an important part in rural households, both spiritually and economically. According to the World Bank agriculture and forestry contribute nearly 40 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
“People’s lives depend on the forest,” said Sareth Brak, a monk who lives in Phnom Penh and created the Raise and Support the Poor Organization. “If people sold their land what would they do? They have no business options.”
In December 2011 Prime Minister Hun Sen denounced the selling of protected land to private investors. To Sinthay Neb, Director of the Advocacy and Policy Institute in Phnom Penh, this situation sounds all too familiar.
In the past, large-scale, legal deforestation caused by forestry concessions was a problem in Cambodia. These concessions were made illegal after the international community pressured the Cambodian government. Instead the government renamed the law, creating ELCs. Today, the government justifies ELCs as a means of boosting economic growth. The reality is that ELCs are worse than the prior forestry concessions as they allow for the clear cutting of the forest for plantations, rather than selective cutting.
The same problem occurs in protected areas. In the words of Phnom Penh resident Sokhan Yung, “Cambodia is very good at taking the illegal and making it legal.”