New Protected Forests Test Overstretched Ministry

The nearly 1 million hectares of newly protected forests the Environment Ministry wants to create by the end of the year will add nearly a third more land to the portfolio of an agency already struggling to manage the 3.2 million hectares it has. And that’s not to mention the more than 1 million hectares of existing protected area it will soon be taking over from the Agriculture Ministry.

Conservation groups and rights monitors have welcomed the government’s plans to create the five new protected forests. But they say that for it to work it will take a level of commitment to conservation and cooperation with partners that the government has rarely shown.

Global Witness, a London-based environmental protection group that has over the years exposed a vast illegal logging network in Cambodia tethered to the top levels of government, called last week’s announcement a “critical first step” in combating the country’s deforestation.

“Cambodia’s forests have been disappearing faster than almost any country on Earth, liquidated for timber, crops and minerals that have made a small elite very rich,” Josie Cohen, the group’s senior land campaigner, said in a statement on Thursday.

“If enacted, this move to halt forest destruction could represent Cambodia’s most significant forest reform for a decade,” she said. “But it will require concerted efforts by the government to overturn the corruption and illegality that has long plagued Cambodia’s forest sector and made all previous attempts to salvage its forests unsuccessful.”

Last Friday, the Environment Ministry said the five new forests had yet to be drawn but would cover a total of 950,000 hectares. It plans to hold a workshop with non-government groups later this month to help work out the details.

The centerpiece will be Prey Lang, which at some 650,000 hectares is the largest remaining lowland deciduous forest in Southeast Asia, and for years has been a hotbed of illegal logging. Plans to turn it into a protected area started more than a decade ago but appeared to have been shelved years ago.

Though only about 400,000 hectares of Prey Lang are earmarked for protected status, the news was lauded by local communities and conservation groups.

But protected area status has done little good for many of Cambodia’s forests.

According to U.S. satellite data analyzed by researchers at the University of Maryland, Cambodia suffered one of the highest deforestation rates of any country between 2000 and 2013 and saw the fastest acceleration of tree-cover loss over that period in the world.

The same data, crunched by local rights group Licadho, shows that the rates of forest loss nationwide and inside the Environment Ministry’s 3.2 million hectares of protected areas were nearly the same—14.6 percent versus 12.2 percent—and that the gap narrowed over time. That means the forests the ministry was charged with protecting had little better chance of surviving than the forests anywhere else.

The Protected Areas Law requires that those areas be zoned to designate the parts that can and cannot be sustainably developed. But eight years after the law took effect, not one protected area has had a zoning map put into effect, leading to damaging development in core areas.

Licadho director Naly Pilorge called the plans for five new protected forests a “positive step” that will cover most of the remaining lowland evergreen forest in Cambodia.

“That said, as the University of Maryland’s global deforestation analysis revealed in Cambodia, a protected area on paper will not do much to combat deforestation if the announcement is not linked to tangible steps on the ground to conduct monitoring and forestry crime crackdown,” she said.

One of the first obstacles the ministry will have to overcome, Licadho said, is a chronic lack of manpower. Some conservationists believe the government should be downsizing its protected areas—giving up what’s already been lost and refocusing on what’s most important—rather than scaling up.

In an interview last year, ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap conceded that they were “very understaffed” with only about 900 rangers to patrol its 3.2 million hectares. That’s roughly one ranger for every 35 square kilometers, he noted. “So you can imagine.”

Global Witness said the ministry would need political backing from the highest levels and the financial resources to make protected status for the five forests actually mean something. It also recommended non-government oversight to cut down on corruption.

The last point has been an especially tough one for the government.

Global Witness was Cambodia’s official independent forest monitor until the government dropped it in 2003 after a series of critical reports from the group; its staff was outright banned from the country in 2005. A French group took over as the official monitor after 2003, but the arrangement did not last long and the government has not had another since.

Along with Licadho, Global Witness also urged the government to let the local communities that depend on the targeted forests help it do the monitoring, as some have already been doing on their own—sometimes at their peril.

Late last month, a member of the Prey Lang Community Network was attacked in her sleep while on an overnight group patrol and hospitalized with a knife wound to the leg. Though the attacker escaped unseen, the network suspects it was one of the many illegal loggers operating in the area. Chut Wutty, a prominent environmentalist who helped start the community patrols of Prey Lang, was shot dead by security forces under still-mysterious circumstances in 2012 while investigating illegal logging in the western Cardamom Mountains.

The government says it’s ready and willing to work with the communities. While announcing his surprise decision to turn Prey Lang into a protected forest last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen himself invited grassroots groups to join forces with authorities.

The network has welcomed the invitation with cautious optimism and stressed that its involvement would be critical.

“The government should work with the local communities to protect the forest because the government can’t protect Prey Lang alone,” said Mun Leang, a network representative.

“I say the government can’t do a better job [than us] because the local communities depend on the forest—the local communities are the blood of the forest,” he said. “The government is a little late in making Prey Lang a protected forest, but it’s not too late.”

Working with the local communities will also help the Environment Ministry shore up its admitted shortage of rangers.

In an interview this week, Mr. Sopheap, the spokesman, said the ministry wanted more rangers but had yet to be assigned any—not even from the Agriculture Ministry, whose Forestry Administration will have more than 1 million fewer hectares to manage after giving up its own protected areas to the Environment Ministry.

“We would love to have more, and we will raise our needs with the government,” he said.

The ministry also gets help from NGOs that train and equip its rangers and from the donors that fund them.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been training and equipping government rangers in the north of Preah Vihear province, home to the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary and the Preah Vihear Protected Forest. It has also been lobbying to turn the Preah Roka forest, which sits between them, into a protected area.

But it saw those efforts stalled after a Forestry Administration ranger and a district police officer were shot dead while on an overnight patrol there in November; a group of illegal loggers have been arrested as suspects but yet to be charged.

Preah Roka is now one of the five forests set to receive protected area status by the end of the year.

“It’s really a critical part of the corridor area, so we’re clearly delighted,” Ross Sinclair, the WCS country director, said on Thursday.

He said all five forests were part of a concerted effort to create such corridors for the country’s threatened or endangered wildlife to move safely between the protected areas that already exist. Giving those corridors protected status, too, he said, would give the government a mandate to step up patrols there and to find the money to fund them.

And while there are no orders to move staff between agencies, Mr. Sinclair said the Environment Ministry was inviting rangers from the Agriculture Ministry’s forestry and fisheries administrations to join it, and that the Agriculture Ministry had let its employees know that they would not lose pay or rank if they made the move.

“So I think the Ministry of Environment is doing everything it can to attract more staff and the Ministry of Agriculture is not doing anything to stop them, and that’s encouraging,” he said.

Mr. Sinclair said he also believed the Environment Ministry’s management of protected areas was genuinely turning a corner for the better.

“The historic picture might not be particularly rosy, but I think that there are signs they are trying to do a better job,” he said. “I understand there is some skepticism about that.”

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)

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