The Forestry Administration on Thursday said it could not comment on the accuracy of new, satellite-generated maps that suggest the government has been vastly overstating the country’s forest cover.
Open Development Cambodia, an open data website, on Wednesday published a series of maps using U.S. satellite data indicating that only 46.3 percent of the country’s land mass was currently covered by forest and that the rate of deforestation was accelerating.
In 2010, the last time the government released its own figures, it said that roughly 57 percent of Cambodia’s land was covered by forest. Since then, it has also said that the country was well on its way to its goal of 60 percent forest cover by 2015.
On Thursday, Meas Makara, the Forestry Administration’s director of forest management and community forests, said he could not tell whether Open Development’s figures were right because the government was in the midst of its latest forest cover assessment, to be finished by 2015.
He also declined to say whether the government believed its 2010 forest cover figure was still roughly accurate.
“Now we cannot say. After that [the government’s latest assessment] we will know more clearly,” he said.
Mr. Makara declined to elaborate much on the new government assessment. He said it would differentiate between natural forest, rubber plantations and other trees but that all of these would count as forest cover.
“Now we include all, rubber plantation and tree plantations,” he said. “All we say is forest, and then we separate.”
Environmental and human rights groups, however, say plantations for rubber and other cash crops should not count as forest cover because they do not match the biodiversity of a natural forest or replace what a natural forests offers the local communities that depend on them.
Open Development’s forest cover figures also include rubber plantations. Without them, its figure would be even lower.
Besides credibly challenging the government’s forest cover figures, Open Development’s new maps show a significant loss of cover since 1973, from 72.1 percent to the 46.3 percent today, with most of it occurring after 2000.
“It is clear that Cambodia has seen a significant decline in its dense [evergreen] forests, especially since 2000, including in protected areas,” said Thy Try, Open Development’s executive director.
“This decline of dense forest further accelerated after 2009,” he added, highlighting losses in the provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Kratie and Takeo provinces.