U.S. Ambassador William Heidt joined Environment Minister Say Sam Al for a helicopter ride over the sprawling Prey Lang forest on Monday in a show of their commitment to preserving the area, the largest remaining lowland deciduous forest in Southeast Asia.
For years the area has been besieged by illegal loggers and clear-cutting rubber plantations and is one of five new protected forests the government wants to set up by the end of the year.
After landing at the Sofitel hotel in Phnom Penh just after midday, Mr. Heidt, who was also joined by officials from the ministries of interior and agriculture, said they had flown around the edges of Prey Lang and over its core.
“The purpose of this was to get the various ministries…together so we could take a joint look at the project and think about how best to protect that area going forward,” Mr. Heidt told reporters.
“It was a very interesting ride,” he said. “We saw both the very nice condition of the central part of that forest. But we also saw some of the threats around the edges, particularly on the southern border, where there’s been a lot of forest cover lost in the last year.”
The ambassador said it was hard to tell how much of the forest loss was taking place beyond the borders of the many economic land concessions (ELCs)—almost all of them growing rubber—ringing Prey Lang.
“It’s very difficult to say,” he said. “We, of course, we had a GPS with us, so we knew where we were. But it’s a big area, there are many different ELCs up there, there are many different communities up there. So it’s really hard to give a good answer on that.”
U.S. satellite data show not only rampant clear-cutting inside most of those ELCs, but also significant deforestation spreading out from them into the forest and snaking through the center. Community groups that have taken it upon themselves to patrol Prey Lang say the companies managing the plantations are the ones doing most of the illegal logging and that local authorities are turning a blind eye to the problem and even colluding with the firms.
The U.S., through its Supporting Forests and Biodiversity project, has been assisting the government’s conservation work for years. The current four-year phase of the project, worth $20 million, is due to expire in November.
Yet, according to the same satellite data that shows the ELCs encroaching on Prey Lang, Cambodia has suffered one of the highest deforestation rates in the world since the turn of the century, and the fastest acceleration of forest loss over the same period, bar none. The data also show little difference between the national deforestation rate and that inside the Environment Ministry’s nominally protected areas, raising doubts about how much good will come of giving protected status to Prey Lang.
But Mr. Heidt said he remained hopeful after his helicopter ride.
“We’re very encouraged that the government ministries involved in that area are starting to work closely together and also working with the local governments,” he said. “We’re trying to get a more coordinated and focused government effort, and we’re very pleased by that.”
The government has yet to explain what it plans to do to better protect Prey Lang, but it has invited the community groups already patrolling the forest to work with authorities.
Standing next to the U.S. ambassador on Monday, Mr. Sam Al, the environment minister, also promised that no more ELCs would be granted inside the forest at least until the national election in 2018. A nationwide moratorium on the issuance of new ELCs has been in place since mid-2012.
“When it becomes a protected forest, we will continue to empower local authorities to work more seriously to protect the forest,” Mr. Sam Al said.
Although the boundaries of what will become the Prey Lang protected forest have yet to be set, the minister said, “it might be more than 300,000 hectares”—far less than the 650,000 hectares the forest is estimated to cover. The figure is also less than the roughly 400,000 hectares the Environment Ministry said the protected forest was likely to cover only two weeks ago.