King Norodom Sihamoni marked National Tree Planting Day on Sunday by urging Cambodians to fight illegal logging and poaching, some two months after a U.K. NGO disclosed illegal logging on an industrial scale in Ratanakkiri province being facilitated by corrupt local officials.
The king was in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, where he made a ceremonial show of helping replant a 10-hectare area of former state forest with 9,000 saplings of mostly Kra Nhung and Thnong, among the most valuable and sought-after species of timber for illegal loggers.
“I would like all compatriots to work together to stop clearing and claiming forestland, illegal logging, poaching and trapping wildlife, and participate in planting as many trees as you can to increase forest cover,” he said. “Your participation reflects a spirit of responsibility for our forests for the benefit of our children and the next generation.”
In his own remarks, Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon bragged about the 1,490 forest crimes the ministry “cracked down on” last year—about 700 fewer than the year before—the 5,213 hectares it saved from clearing, and the 295 chainsaws it confiscated.
Contacted after the ceremony, he declined to speak with a reporter, referring questions to the ministry’s Forestry Administration, which could not be reached.
Neither the king nor the minister made any mention of the government’s role in the country’s deforestation.
U.S. satellite data collected and analyzed by the University of Maryland shows that Cambodia had one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world between 2001 and 2014.
Most of the loss has occurred at rubber plantations approved by the government inside the country’s nominally protected areas. The government claims the plantations are only approved over degraded forest, but has no evidence to support the claim. Evidence from local communities and independent research refutes the assertion.
Data published by the university shows deforestation in Cambodia falling in 2015, the latest year for which data is available—but still hitting the country’s protected areas hard.
In May, the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K. NGO, released the results of a monthslong probe that found Vietnamese companies conducting a large-scale illegal logging operation in the protected forests of Ratanakkiri with the aid of local soldiers and police. The Environment Ministry, which manages protected areas, says it is investigating the findings.