Almost nine years after Cambodia mandated the zoning of all protected areas to shield its most precious parts from development, the government finally zoned its first two sanctuaries last week, though some locals and conservationists doubt the effort will make much of a difference to forests and wildlife.
U.S. satellite data published by the University of Maryland show that Cambodia has suffered one of the highest deforestation rates in the world since the turn of the century, and that forest loss inside the country’s nominally protected areas has been nearly as severe as the national average.
The Law on Nature Protection, which took effect in February 2008, required all protected areas to be zoned in order to set aside those parts that should be preserved at all costs, as well as so-called buffer zones along their inside edges that could be spared for sustainable farming. While the government subsequently leased out tens of thousands of hectares of protected areas to agribusinesses that went on to clear large tracts of healthy forest, the Environment Ministry blamed a lack resources for not zoning a single one.
Years in the works, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed off on zoning plans on Friday for two of the country’s larger protected areas: the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondolkiri province and the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, which straddles Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri province to the north. They cover about 475,000 hectares of habitat that helps sustain Cambodia’s indigenous ethnic minorities and some threatened species.
Both sanctuaries are also home to a number of agribusiness operations long accused of using their bases in economic land concessions (ELCs) to plunder protected forests around them for lucrative timber.
Sao Sopheap, Environment Minister Say Sam Al’s Cabinet chief, said on Monday that zoning the sanctuaries would help stem the looting.
“The government issued the sub-decrees to properly manage the protected areas because people have illegally destroyed forest products there in the past,” he said.
Of Lumphat’s 250,000 hectares, about 42,000 hectares are now designated as core zones, the highest of the four designations laid out in the Nature Protection Law.
“We strictly ban activity in the core zone because it is the most important to protect,” he said. “We will not let people exploit the core zone because it has very valuable biological resources, wildlife and forests.”
The sanctuaries also include conservation zones—still-valuable habitat that local communities can use to collect forest products other than timber under “strict control” so long as it does not do lasting damage. Local residents can use community zones for housing and to practice subsistence farming, while sustainable-use zones can continue to be leased out to investors.
In Lumphat, the sub-decree sets aside about 105,300 hectares for conservation zones, 23,700 hectares for community zones and 79,100 for sustainable use.
Six separate agribusiness firms have already leased out about 47,000 hectares of Lumphat, though locals and NGOs say there is little if anything sustainable about them.
A number of studies have found that, contrary to government claims, ELCs have failed to help pull the communities around them out of poverty, instead driving many families into debt after grabbing their farms and communal forests. Hoang Anh Gia Lai, a Vietnamese rubber company with several plantations in Ratanakkiri, including at least one in Lumphat, is currently negotiating settlement deals with hundreds of families who accuse the company of stealing their land.
The Environment Ministry said it planned to eventually zone all of Cambodia’s 40-plus protected areas, but would not say when or which ones would be next.
The NGO BirdLife International had been helping the government draft its zoning plan for Lumphat since 2012. Despite the damage already done to the sanctuary, country program manager Bou Vorsak said on Monday that there was still plenty left to save.
“It’s not too late because Lumphat is 250,000 hectares and about 50,000 hectares have been developed,” he said. “Lumphat is not Snuol.”
The Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Kratie province has been almost completely given over to ELCs and has little forest cover left, leaving behind a wildlife sanctuary in name only.
Mr. Vorsak said there was still a lot of work left to do in Lumphat to put the zoning into practice, from erecting markers to educating locals on the details and developing an operating protocol for rangers.
Even with zoning, it remains to be seen if the government has the resources for enforcement. It has admitted to having far too few rangers to effectively manage its protected areas, even without strict zoning rules, and recent efforts to scale up the force will barely be enough to keep up with the several new protected areas created last year.
Dam Lean, who lives inside the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, said groups of illegal loggers continue to loot the protected forest for its best timber. He said the loggers claim to have permission from the sanctuary management itself, giving him little hope that zoning will do much to change that.
“I met more than 10 loggers in the sanctuary a month ago. I asked them who let them log the trees; they told me the sanctuary let them,” he said. “I think the sub-decree won’t work because the management always lets people log inside the sanctuary.”
Pen Bonnar, senior investigator for land rights and natural resources for rights group Adhoc, agreed. He said the zoning would only be as useful as the government’s commitment to enforce it, and that its commitment to date had given him little hope.
“So far, I don’t see anyone punished by the law,” he said. “To me, it’s not important to divide into two or three or four…. It’s important only if the government uses the law. But I don’t hope, because the government, they don’t use the law.”