By: Michele Penna

Tree cover loss in Cambodia has accelerated faster than in any other country in the world since 2001, so fast that Prey Lang, one of Southeast Asia’s last great forests, is disappearing.

Supposedly that has alarmed Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who in February threatened to fire rockets at illegal loggers. Environment Minister Say Samal doubled down four months later, claiming that the “large-scale timber logging” the country used to see had “entirely ended.” 

But the felled trees scattered around Prey Lang, Cambodia’s largest lowland evergreen forest, tell a different story, one where no rockets are fired and deforestation marches on. Although the area is one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots, environmental activists warn that both Prey Lang and the Cambodian jungle in general are reaching a point of no return.

“In the 1990s, Cambodia was still very special, because it was 30 years behind its neighbors in terms of so-called development. It was not like other countries that had already been destroyed,” said Marcus Hardtke, a conservationist and expert on Southeast Asia’s forests. “Over the past 10 years, they have established one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world.”

Much of the damage is linked to Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), patches of land allotted to investors – both Khmer and foreign – to help develop rural areas. Since the early 2000s, ELCs have proved popular with companies, quadrupling in size between 2004 and 2013, according to the environmental NGO Forest Trends.

However, observers claim they have fostered little development and much illegal logging, as vast swathes of land have been cleared with the excuse of agro-industrial projects – Siamese Rosewood, a hardwood endemic to parts of Southeast Asia, has been a chief casualty. Protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and coveted by Chinese buyers for its beauty and durability, rosewood is now so rare that loggers are trespassing into Thailand to steal it.

And it is not just China’s voracious appetite for hongmu – Chinese for rosewood – furniture that is wreaking havoc on Southeast Asia’s environment. Vietnamese, American and European markets all drive the demand for timber, said Ouch Leng, an activist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016.

“Companies need to protect the forests and preserve the original natural system, but this is just in theory. Once they have a license, they chase people away and cut the trees,” Leng said, adding that illegal logging can take place only because the authorities look the other way or are actively involved.

Prey Lang is no exception. Besieged by concessions on both its western and eastern sides, the forest is quickly shrinking to make way for endless lines of rubber, mango and pepper trees.

Only about 40 percent of the original jungle remains, Leng said, and although its surviving core was declared a protected area this year, loggers have hardly put down their chainsaws. On the contrary, with valuable timber becoming scarcer and rosewood all but gone in nearby ELCs, they are pushing ever deeper into the forest, looking primarily for resin trees, species which play a key role in sustaining local communities thanks to the valuable resin they produce.

As of August, the mud tracks crisscrossing the remaining jungle were dotted with felled trunks, stored in the open for the dry season, when trucks will be able to negotiate their way and pick them up. Worryingly, the number of resin trees chopped greatly surpassed that of those still standing.

It is hard to establish where exactly the timber is sent to, but villagers alleged the trees are bought by a spawning sawmill located in an ELC on the edge of the forest. The heavily guarded, walled compound contained hundreds of stockpiled trunks. Discarded logs were abandoned only a few hundred meters away.

According to Hardke, the sawmill is owned by Seng Keang – colloquially known as SK or Mr. 95 – an organization described in a 2007 study by anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness as “the most powerful logging syndicate in Cambodia.”

The same document linked SK directly to the central government, reporting that the company is led by Dy Chouch, the first cousin of Hun Sen,  his ex-wife Seng Keang – a friend of Bun Rany, the Prime Minister’s wife – and Khun Thong, brother-in-law of then Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Chan Sarun and father-in-law of then Director General of the Forest Administration Ty Sokhun.

Logging on the scale seen in Prey Lang hardly benefits local communities, which claim they gain more from farming and harvesting the jungle’s resources than by working in plantations, where they can be paid as little as US$2.50 a day.

“The companies say they will give people jobs. But in reality they treat them like enemies,” said Leng. “That this is a development is just propaganda to the world.”

While protests have taken place multiple times in the past, villagers are increasingly becoming loggers themselves, partly because they see little alternative.

“At first, they did not cut the trees. But when they saw people from other provinces come and log, they decided to cut the trees themselves and sell them to the sawmill,” said  Van Say, a land-owner in Spong village, who claims he lost hundreds of his trees to woodcutters.

“Logging is increasing,” complained Thy Pitu in Srè village. “All local residents think that when the companies come, they will chop the trees anyway.” The refrain is nearly ubiquitous in Prey Lang. As locals see the trees being felled, they have a choice: they can allow others to do the job or join in and grab the crumbles of a multi-million dollar business.

“They have already done big damage,” said Hardtke. “Even where you still have forest, it is like the death of one thousand cuts.”

Michele Penna (michelepenna87@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel who is stationed in Cambodia