In creating industrial tree plantations for the production of paper pulp, Cambodians and the government should study what has happened in other countries that have promoted the same business, three foreign environmentalists said last week.
The three men were in Phnom Penh earlier this month to meet with other members of the forestry community about the advantages and disadvantages of tree plantations. And though they had never worked in Cambodia, they said the situation here is similar to many other countries.
“Learn as much as you can,” said Larry Lohmann of UK-based social and environmental group Corner House. “Luckily Cambodia has decades of other countries’ failures to draw from. All this information and knowledge is there.”
When the Thai government was first promoting plantations years ago, Luan Srisupho of the Northeastern Farmers Forum in Thailand said he witnessed many of the struggles rural Cambodians are now facing.
He said a company built an industrialized eucalyptus plantation on a large plot of land his fellow villagers had been living on. Two years later, the lakes and creeks started drying up. The other vegetation started to die and then the animals followed. “We lost our natural supermarket,” Luan said.
The worst part, he said, was that villagers who had long supported themselves from the natural environment were forced to look elsewhere for jobs. Families broke up as young workers went to the cities to find work.
“Parents and children can’t live together anymore,” he said. “People can’t take care of each other anymore.”
Villagers developed health problems from malnutrition, stress and chemicals used at the plantations, he said.
Lohmann said given the size of plantations, armed guards are often used to watch over them, and companies disregard traditional concepts of land ownership. “It’s also changing the notion of locally understood laws and their way of doing things,” he said.
Eventually, as villagers get more frustrated, violence can erupt, as it has in Indonesia in recent years and in Thailand in the 1980s and 1990s.“By the nature of how it’s done, it’s a recipe for violence,” Lohmann added.
But Ly Phalla, director general of the government’s General Directorate of Rubber Plantations, criticized environmentalists and others for focusing only on negative viewpoints of plantations. Ly Phalla said international donors and NGOs are playing up the disadvantages of plantations instead of embracing something has the potential to lift rural Cambodians out of poverty.“Why would we kill our own people?” he asked Wednesday.
Ly Phalla said “pessimistic ideas” presented by environmentalists are keeping farmers from realizing the full benefits of plantations by not encouraging them to become involved.
“We hope the people will help us,” he said. “We want to help out the poor people.”
Chris Lang of World Rainforest Movement said the government has long promoted the need for industrial plantations as a way to bolster the economy, especially with foreign investors.
But the government must keep local villagers in mind.“I think it’s crucial to look at the impacts at a local level,” he said. “We know plantations are not forests.”
Luan encouraged Cambodians to do what they can to hold onto their land.“Protect your land, protect your water, protect your forest…. Once these resources are gone, the other effects will follow,” he said.