Deforestation for profit in Cambodia

Efforts to protect forests come crashing down as locals see gold in felling trees

TA BOS (Cambodia) • The Cambodian rosewood had stood for hundreds of years, but its value finally proved too hard to resist and the giant tree came crashing down - inside a protected forest.

It is unclear exactly who was behind the felling - nobody has been charged - but it set off a series of events, which culminated in hundreds of villagers rejecting their community forest in favour of cutting more trees.

The incident underscores the challenge of protecting the country's forests, which researchers say have been rapidly disappearing due to logging and agricultural land concessions granted to companies.

Cambodia has among the highest deforestation rates in the world, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances last year.

It lost 1.6 million hectares between 2001 and 2014, including 38 per cent of its "intact forest landscape", which the study defined as "a seamless mosaic of forest and naturally treeless ecosystems".

Conservationists have fought for years to convince the government and people in remote areas to check deforestation, and the community forest model has been a key strategy. Local residents agree to preserve a community forest, although they can continue to farm areas already under cultivation, as well as harvest timber needed for construction - if they receive permission.

That model is broken, according to Mr Ben Davis, who has worked in conservation in Cambodia since 1992 and set up the community forest near Ta Bos village in the province of Preah Vihear.

Mr Davis has helped NGOs set up other community forests, which he said had ended up being logged as soon as no one was around to enforce protection.

"Unless there's an NGO that is living there in the forest," he said, trailing off. "The minute they're gone..."

Mr Davis said villagers recently sold one section of the tree - 1.7m long and more than a metre in diameter - for US$10,000 (S$13,360).

Mr Davis, an American, and his Australian wife, Sharyn, live with their two children in the community forest where they have set up an eco-tourism lodge.

In April, eight organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund, released a statement warning of "the rapid rate of destruction" and urged the Cambodian authorities to "enforce the rule of law".

Already this month, three villagers have been arrested for cutting down a massive padauk tree, an endangered, luxury hardwood that is carved into furniture and musical instruments.

Mr Davis said the rosewood incident had emboldened residents, as some had gained from the illegal felling. "They hope to get away with it again," he said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2018, with the headline Deforestation for profit in Cambodia. Subscribe