The amount of land under the Agriculture Ministry’s jurisdiction that was illegally cleared of forest nearly doubled to about 5,200 hectares last year despite an overall drop in recorded forest-related crimes, the ministry said in its year-end report.
“Illegal forest clearing and forestland claiming has continued ceaselessly until now,” the ministry concedes in the report, which it released online on Wednesday.
According to the report, the ministry recorded a total of 1,490 criminal cases of logging, wildlife poaching or forest clearing last year, down significantly from the 2,189 cases it recorded the year before.
Despite the drop in overall cases, the report says that 5,213 hectares of forest were illegally cleared last year for the purpose of using the land, often for crops. That’s nearly double the 2,704 hectares it says were cleared in 2015.
Of the 1,490 criminal cases, it adds that 390 were resolved with fines and the rest were sent to court. Twenty-three people were arrested.
The report does not explain how the 23 arrests and the 1,100 cases sent to court were resolved.
Nor does it explain why total forest crime cases fell last year, despite a near doubling of the amount of forestland illegally cleared.
The figures do not cover the millions of hectares of mostly forested land under the control of the Environment Ministry.
Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon, contacted in Brussels by telephone, said he had not seen the new report and was unfamiliar with the data.
Chheng Kim Sun, who heads the ministry’s Forestry Administration, declined to comment and referred questions to his deputy, Ung Sam Ath, who could not be reached.
The Agriculture Ministry completed a major reorganization last year, handing over all the protected areas under its control to the Environment Ministry while taking over management of all economic land concessions that had been under the purview of the Environment Ministry.
At the same time, the Agriculture Ministry put the Forestry Administration’s regional offices under tighter control of the provincial governments.
Both measures were sold as efforts to improve overall management of the country’s protected areas, many of which have come under heavy pressure from poaching, illegal logging and commercial agribusiness operations.
Pen Bonnar, senior investigator for land rights and natural resources for rights group Adhoc, said the ministry’s latest figures downplayed the deforestation problem nationwide.
“I can say that tens of thousands of hectares of forest were cleared,” he said. “Forest clearing is happening and there is no sign it’s decreasing. Because of impunity, the forest clearing goes on.”
Mr. Bonnar said that same impunity could explain the increase in forest clearing the Agriculture Ministry recorded in its own jurisdiction, as the lack of arrests and prosecutions emboldened more people to clear land.
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