Clearcutting Cambodia's ecological heartland


Editor's note: This article is excerpted from Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio, published by Yale University Press on Nov. 25.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — More than anything, one is struck by the emptiness. After an hour bumping along narrow tracks through dark forest undergrowth, the lack of trees comes as a shock. Suddenly there’s blue sky above. Suddenly, the hot beating glare of the Cambodian sun.

This is where Ba Heak works, in the midst of a shadeless expanse. His work begins when the trees are already gone, felled and trucked to unknown destinations. It’s then that he gets to work bulldozing the earth, pushing the remaining roots and branches into piles to be burnt. Heak’s job is to make the land sa’aht, “clean,” a term used by people here to refer to land that’s been flattened and prepared for agriculture. “First they cut all the trees down, and then I come to scrape the land clean. After that maybe I’ll get sent to another area,” the 31-year old told me, standing in the shadow of his bulldozer, a hulking grey beast bearing a sticker from Phnom Penh’s United Mercury Group (“The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence”).

Heak receives $9 for every hectare he clears, which is pretty good money considering he can manage three or four per day. He sends most of his earnings to his wife and child in Kampong Speu, some 270 kilometers away. Heak’s days are long. With nothing to protect him from the sun, he spends his downtime snoozing in a hole he has dug in the shade between the bulldozer’s two large caterpillar tracks. A creased brown moonscape stretches all around, littered with burnt tree stumps and piles of smoldering wood that give off a fragrant silver-blue smoke. Fringes of forest tickle the horizon.

This clearing lies at the heart of one of Cambodia’s most significant forests. Prey Lang, as it is known locally, is the largest primary lowland evergreen forest  remaining in mainland Southeast Asia — a zone of 3,600 square kilometers sprawling across four provinces in the country’s north. Prey Lang is a crucial biodiversity area that is home to dozens of endangered plant and animal species. Its role in regulating the flow of water and sediment south to the Tonlé Sap lake basin is so vital that Cambodian environmentalists sometimes describe it as a “second Amazon.” The forest also supports some 10,000 families — mostly of the Kuy indigenous minority—who practice rotating slash-and-burn agriculture and harvest forest products like vines, rattan, and liquid tree resin, a special product used for waterproofing wooden boats and making paints and varnishes.

Despite Prey Lang’s ecological significance, the Cambodian government has yet to declare it a protected area. Since the late 1990s, firms linked to high-ranking government officials have been granted logging concessions in and around Prey Lang, on the pretext of clearing land for agro- plantations. In 2007 the London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness reported in detail on one particular project, the Tumring Rubber Plantation, a 4,359-hectare concession which was used as cover for the extraction of huge amounts of timber. Global Witness linked logging proceeds to relatives of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, his personal bodyguard unit, and authorities at every level of government.

The Tumring logging operation wound up in 2006, but it wasn’t the first or last venture of its kind. In 2010 the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) leased a 6,044-hectare plantation in Kampong Thom province’s Sandan district to a Vietnamese rubber firm called CRCK, not far from where the Tumring operation had been. The loggers soon got to work, striking new roads through the forest. Standing in the CRCK plantation clearing, Mao Chanthoeun, an activist with the Prey Lang Community Network, which patrols the forest and documents logging activities, told me  that the trees were felled several months ago, but that fires to clear roots and scrub had raged  just the night before. When network activists protested against the felling, the authorities said they’d suspend their work. “But they didn’t stop,” she said, smoke curling upwards from charred logs nearby. “They cut trees night and day.”

Kuy tribespeople living around the CRCK plantation all had a similar story. “They destroyed our cashew nut trees,” said Chea Sot, a man in a faded T-shirt who lost a hectare of cultivated fields to the bulldozers. Local officials arrived, took his name, and promised to compensate him for the loss of his crop. Nothing happened. “The company got my land, but they didn’t give me anything back. There was no compensation at all.” Kun Thea, from the same village, said her family relies on the tapping of resin, which they sell or barter in Sandan town. “We have no rice fields,” she said from her perch on a mound of earth near a felled tree, where more local people sat and surveyed the scene. “We need oxen or buffalo to help cultivate the land, but we don’t have any. That’s why we need the trees.”

There’s evidence that CRCK’s logging operation extends far beyond the official plantation boundaries. According to Chhim Savuth, a wiry former soldier who has fought illegal logging in Cambodia since 2002, the company fells logs as far as 20 kilometers away and then trucks them back within the concession in order to conceal the illegal harvests. “This company gets very good access. They destroy more forest than other companies, right in the middle of the jungle,” Savuth said, as we bumped along the muddy road from the provincial capital of Kampong Thom to Sandan, occasionally passing a large truck filled with timber planks. The local authorities have even provided battalions of police and military police to help guard the plantation area. “They all get money,” he said, staring intently ahead as he piloted the battered Toyota Camry through the mud, “from the low level up to the high level.”

In early 2012 the Cambodian government drafted a subdecree that would extend protected status to Prey Lang. Passage of the law would be a step forward, but it’s unclear what difference it would make. Legal protections have done little to prevent the Boeung Per Wildlife Sanctuary, a 242,500-hectare protected area just to the west of Prey Lang, from being obliterated by illegal loggers. According to the human rights group ADHOC, nearly half of the area has been granted to rubber companies, the biggest of which are reportedly owned by the casino and logging magnate Try Pheap and An Marady, another prominent Cambodian tycoon.

As in Prey Lang, Savuth says these two firms fell trees in surrounding areas and then launder them through their concession lands. He even suspects that Try Pheap Import Export Co. Ltd. has driven into Prey Lang, removed trees, and transported them back to Boeung Per for processing. One  Environment Ministry official told the Phnom Penh Post that the concessions were granted in “degraded forest” areas. But Savuth said the firms single out valuable “luxury” trees like Siamese rosewood, a richly hued hardwood that can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per log for buyers in Vietnam and China. “With the value of these logs there would be no need for the Cambodian government to borrow money from foreign countries,” he said, urging the car onward. “When I see the loss caused by deforestation, I feel almost crazy.”

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