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Elites are threatening Cambodia’s forests

Large-scale plantations have resulted in Cambodia exhibiting one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. The major driver of forest policy during the 1990s, and now, concerns elites who deploy the state to manage and exploit Cambodia’s natural resources.

By Andrew Cock

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 12, 2017

East Asia Forum

Large-scale plantations have resulted in Cambodia exhibiting one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. This deforestation was perhaps the inevitable outcome of the rapaciously wasteful logging operations that occurred during the 1990s as the countryside was integrated into the global economy after decades of civil war and sanction-induced isolation. The major driver of forest policy during the 1990s, and now, concerns elites who deploy the state to manage and exploit Cambodia’s natural resources.

Regional economic integration has opened up seemingly endless opportunities for the manipulation and monetisation of the country’s resource patrimony.  Integration initially entailed the elite inviting domestic and foreign logging concessions to extract timber from Cambodia’s rich dipterocarp forests. The elite hoped that these concessionaires would keep so-called ‘anarchical loggers’, which usually meant dispersed military units, in check and channel the logging rents upwards. Land concessions followed the logging concessions. This new concession form mandated complete forest clearance and often still involved the work of freelance military units in logging operations and the pacification of aggrieved local communities.

As prices for luxury timber rose, driven by mainland Chinese demand, remaining forest areas were systematically combed for these prized trees, with associates of key government officials managing these mafia-like operations. Compounding land clearance for plantation schemes, rapid population growth — and especially the recent impact of large-scale infrastructure schemes such as roads, mines and hydropower dams — have doomed some of the remaining intact forest areas.

What is now being done to rectify these disastrous policies? In the face of this relentless, tragic loss of Cambodia’s cultural and natural heritage, approximately one million hectares of additional forests were designated for protection in an April 2016 sub-decree and transferred from the management responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to the Ministry of Environment (MOE). A new sub-decree establishing Biodiversity Corridors of 1.5 million hectares, including some of these transferred areas, was subsequently issued in January 2017.

The mandate for forest protection should now, in theory, be more robust with the shift of this responsibility to the MOE, now led by Say Samal. An Australia–Singapore educated ‘princeling’, with a doctorate in science from Monash University, he has given conservationists hope of being able to effectively combine technical competence and political clout in the pursuit of environmental sustainability.

But the deeper structures of Cambodia’s political regime limit the possibilities for rational policymaking by even the most effective minister. Economic power is highly concentrated amongst some of the families of the ruling elite. In addition, constituencies from within the military and ruling party compete for a cut of the spoils. The rise of social media as a platformfor the spread of news, videos, photos and community chatter is a wild-card in this context. Social media has substantially enhanced transparency concerning the government’s conduct but ironically may make rational policymaking more difficult by tending to award expressions of populism.

Beyond the clientelism and patronage that paralyse effective action at lower levels of the state bureaucracy, the major challenge for forest policy concerns how to insulate forests from the degradation and conversion related to population growth and regional economic integration. Meeting this challenge will involve finding a way to grant primacy over forests to those social groups living in and around forest areas that have a cultural and economic interest in preservation, even as the outlook of these same social groups rapidly change.

Resources should also be invested in ensuring these Cambodian and indigenous minority groups are supported and compensated for their indispensable, if fragile, role. One path is to build on the knowledge accumulated from the piloting of schemes aimed at reducing emissionsfrom deforestation and forest degradation.

The main hope of conserving Cambodia’s remaining natural forests is to politically and materially support those social groups that have long lived in and around these areas. At least some of these people want to preserve the forests where they live even as they may modify and extract from these same forest areas. Local communities in favour of forest protection are undoubtedly essential local agents of the global common good. Policymakers concerned about global environmental degradation and climate change need to do much more to figure out how to support their role and acknowledge their importance.

The timely demarcation of a permanent forest estate (not a plantation estate) would help. The technology and financial resources could then be deployed to provide the people living in and around this estate with the goods and social services to lead fulfilling lives as they perform the reciprocal service of helping to protect these forests. Cambodia is a country ripe with possibilities for getting into the nitty-gritty of putting such local and global forest protection ambitions into practice.

Andrew Cock is a research associate at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, United Nations University, Tokyo. His newest book, Governing Cambodia’s Forests: the International Politics of Policy Reformis published by NIAS Press.

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