Report Challenges Gov’t Land Concession Claims

Cambodia is experiencing a “total system failure” of its forest management regime in the face of the government’s widespread and unlawful use of concessions meant for growing crops to let companies harvest timber, according to a new report by U.S.-based environmental protection group Forest Trends.

Drawing on forest-fire data gleaned from U.S. satellite imagery, Forest Trends says the economic land concessions (ELCs) are clearing some of Cambodia’s most valuable forests, challenging the government’s claims that it is giving out only degraded forest land.

U.S. satellite data has also shown Cambodia has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world.

“The fact that permits for economic land concessions are being used as an unlawful vehicle to exhaust the remaining timber resources of the country at such a rapid rate represents a total system failure of the country’s forest protection laws,” Kerstin Canby, director of Forest Trends’ forest trade and finance program, said in a statement.

ELCs have become a well-known driver of recent deforestation in Cambodia. Forest Trends says its report, released Wednesday evening, offers the first comprehensive analysis linking the two.

Drawing on official records collected by local rights group Licadho, because the government has failed to maintain an up-to-date list, it says that 272 ELCs had been granted as of 2013—the year before a moratorium on new concessions—covering some 14 percent of the country’s surface.

Noting the low level of timber farming, and citing Cambodia’s laws, Forest Trends argues that the government has been deliberately misusing the ELCs to harvest timber from natural forests, for so-called “conversion timber,” after doing away with official logging concessions in the early 2000s.

“Conversion timber harvesting is circumventing and even contradicting existing natural resource legislation,” the report says. “The allocation of ELCs on forest land lacks transparent standards, leading to a patchwork of different regulations being seemingly arbitrarily applied by the authorities.”

Forest Trends says it also looked at NASA’s satellite imagery of forest fires in Cambodia during the 2012/13 dry season, which measured carbon emissions as a proxy for the biomass of the forests that burned. More carbon generally means more biomass, which indicates a healthier forest.

According to the report, carbon emissions from evergreen forests being cut down inside Cambodia’s ELCs were almost 10 times higher than the emissions from outside the concessions, “confirming that corporations are targeting the oldest and most valuable forests—many of them on national forest lands—for logging.”

Thun Sarath, deputy director of the Agriculture Ministry’s planning department, denied that authorities were letting companies using their ELCs expressly to harvest timber.

“The ELCs [are] allocated to investors who can put in capital, who can grow cassava and rubber,” he said. “If he just cuts the tree, he abuses the contract. Then the authorities can cancel the contract.”

As for the forest-fire data, Mr. Sarath referred questions to Agriculture Ministry spokesman

Lor Reaksmey, who could not be reached.

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