The core of one of Cambodia’s most important and abused forests —Prey Lang—was officially declared a protected area this week after years of campaigning by local activists and foreign conservationists.
It is one of five new protected areas covering nearly a million hectares made official in a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday and disseminated on Friday. The sub-decree also transfers 13 already protected forests from the Agriculture Ministry’s portfolio to the Environment Ministry’s and hands oversight of 73 economic land concessions to the Agriculture Ministry.
While environmentalists have been pushing for Prey Lang to receive protected status for years, news that the sub-decree sets aside only 305,366 hectares of the sprawling forest for protection was met with disappointment by local environmentalists on Friday—frustrated that the substantially larger area they had lobbied for was rejected.
“I cannot accept it,” said Phok Hong, a member of the Prey Lang Community Network in Preah Vihear province, where the extent of Prey Lang is excluded from the new protected area.
“At least 470,000 hectares should be included in the government’s official map for protection, otherwise it will affect the people in Preah Vihear province,” she added. “The prime minister’s decision to downsize the Prey Lang forest for protection is very suspicious.”
Conservationists consider the greater Prey Lang area to encompass more than 600,000 hectares —spanning parts of Kompong Thom, Preah Vihear, Stung Treng and Kratie provinces—but some have questioned the wisdom of creating protected areas that a severely under-resourced Environment Ministry would struggle to administer.
In addition to Prey Lang, the ministry will now be tasked with safeguarding 443,134 hectares of Prey Chrak Robieng Khang Tbong in Kampong Speu, Pursat and Koh Kong provinces; 80,823 hectares of Prey Preah Rokar in Preah Vihear; 65,070 hectares of Prey Siem Pang Lech in Stung Treng; and 56,932 hectares of Prey Voen Sai-Siem Pang in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri provinces.
All of these forests are under serious threat from Cambodia’s rampant illegal logging trade, which has pushed the rate of deforestation in the country to increase faster than anywhere on Earth, according to an analysis of U.S. satellite images by the University of Maryland in College Park.
Prey Lang, which has lost approximately half of its core, has seen some of the most coordinated community responses to illegal logging.
Groups under the umbrella of the Prey Lang network have mobilized patrols to crack down on individual loggers and companies logging beyond the boundaries of their government-granted concessions.
On Monday, however, Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said the network would no longer be allowed to operate independently and would be required to join government patrols instead. Mr. Sopheap could not be reached on Friday.
Josie Cohen, senior land campaigner at Global Witness, which has been heavily involved in the push to make Prey Lang a protected area, said the prohibition of independent patrols was concerning given the government’s poor track record on forest protection.
“This is a historic opportunity to protect Cambodia’s last remaining forests,” she said in an email. “To avoid it being yet another greenwash or undermined by corruption, [the Ministry of Environment] must agree to co-manage Cambodia’s protected areas with community activist groups like the Prey Lang Community Network who have proved repeatedly to be the best guardians of the forest.”
Longtime Cambodia-based environmental activist Marcus Hardtke said the ministry had “no choice but to opt for new, progressive co-management models.”
“I’m confident the Ministry will get reasonable about this. [It’s] in its own interest,” he said.
In a speech on Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen appeared to encourage community participation in the enforcement of protected areas but did not say whether independent patrols would be permitted.
“The Royal Government needs to protect the forest, and villagers also want to protect the forest and trees, so we have the same goal,” he said. “The citizens, although they are not the judiciary or the police, shall make reports or perform activities to combat deforestation.”
(Additional reporting by David Boyle)