Cambodia lost more than 7 percent of its forest cover over the past 12 years—the fifth fastest rate in the world—according to a new study of global forest cover change that sharply contradicts the government’s own rosier figures.
Published Friday in the journal Science and led by researchers at the University of Maryland, the study draws on U.S. satellite data to track changes in forest cover around the world between 2000 and 2012.
According to the study, Cambodia lost nearly 12,600 square km of forest during those dozen years and gained only 1,100 square km of new forest in return, a total loss of 7.1 percent of the country’s forests.
Worldwide only Malaysia, Paraguay, Indonesia and Guatemala had higher rates of deforestation over the same period.
The researchers say their study is the first to combine a consistent measure of forest cover around the world and such a degree of precision. Their interactive online maps have a resolution of 30 meters.
“We present these data as a means to have more transparent information on forest dynamics
where there is currently little transparency,” University of Maryland professor Matthew Hansen, who led the research team, said via email Monday.
“I hope it can spur more informed decision-making on the uses of Cambodian forests,” he added.
Though recent government data on the country’s forest cover is sparse, this new study paints a very different picture of Cambodia compared to what information is currently available.
In its 2010 “Strategic Framework,” the government’s Forestry Administration said Cambodia had lost only 0.5 percent of its forests between 2002 and 2006. After the government assessed its forest cover again later that same year, it upped the figures and said Cambodia lost 2 percent of its forests since its last assessment in 2005/2006.
Thun Sarath, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Administration, said he did not know what the latest official figures on forest cover were, and he would not comment on the numbers in the new study because he had not seen it yet. Mr. Sarath said the Forestry Administration was in the middle of yet another assessment, but he did not know when new figures would be ready.
“Now it’s not yet clarified,” Mr. Sarath said of the data.
Mr. Sarath also said that the country’s forests have to compete for their survival against the need to expand crop production.
“They [the Agriculture Ministry] have their duty to increase crops and there are limited [land] resources,” he said.
Mr. Sarath added that the government was still aiming for 60 percent forest cover across the country by 2015. In 2010, the official estimate of forest cover stood at 57 percent. The University of Maryland research did not provide a forest cover estimate.
NGOs and environmental rights groups such as Global Witness have long challenged the government’s claims of healthy, expanding forests in the face of ample evidence of rampant forest clearing, either illegal or under cover of broad loopholes in laws and regulations governing economic land concessions.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant on land use issues for local rights group Licadho, said the new University of Maryland study offered some of the strongest evidence yet of the demise of the country’s forests.
“There is no better way to show the problem Cambodia’s forests have gone through and are going through than with these maps…. It’s very damning,” he said.
“The government has over the years said many things” to justify forest clearing, he said.
“This project effectively argues otherwise.”
In recent years, tens of thousands of hectares of land designated as economic land concessions have been granted to agri-business firms inside designated state forests and sanctuaries, forests that by law should be protected. Officials circumvent existing laws by claiming the forests demarcated for land concessions are “degraded” forest of no value. NGOs and environmental rights groups say many of these forests are anything but degraded, and the latest study seems to back up that claim.
The University of Maryland researchers divide the forests in each country into four groups based on how dense they are. In Cambodia, of the 12,600 square km of forest lost in the last 12 years, most of it—nearly 8,900 square km—was lost in the densest areas, according to the researchers.
The maps also show some of the heaviest deforestation in the central and eastern provinces of Kompong Cham, Kompong Thom and Stung Treng. What is more, the deforestation appears to have picked up pace over the 12 years with most of it taking place in the past few years, according to the maps.
Globally, the study found a net loss of forest cover over the past dozen years of some 1.5 million square km, an area about the size of Mongolia.