"Sea of Trees" Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Traveling through Mondulkiri province in the northern highlands of Cambodia earlier this month, I found myself on the top of a hillside, taking in deep breaths of crisp fresh air, and enjoying the peaceful view onto the “sea of trees”. But somewhere in the back of my head I was thinking about the terrible stories I’ve heard about deforestation in Cambodia and couldn’t help wondering if this was an anomaly, or how long these trees would be there?

Cambodia is ranked the 3rd worst country for deforestation rates in the world.  I’ve heard people in Phnom Penh say, where you would once find vast forests in the northern regions of the country, there are now long stretches of green plains, hills, and farmland.

Cropland in Mondulkiri

The causes of deforestation have evolved with the changing political and economic climate in Cambodia, with timber sales funding the Khmer Rouge regime and subsequent wars, in addition to local needs for additional cropland and daily supplies of firewood for cooking.  According to the World Wildlife Organization, “the Lower Mekong Dry Forests once blanketed north-eastern Thailand, southern Laos, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam but a majority has been cleared for farming.”

More than 80 percent of Cambodia’s population lives in the countryside and depends on subsistence farming. “[Today] the main cause of the loss of forest is the increase in the population” said Deputy Governor Leng Vuth in a 2010 UNDP report, “we now have 70,000 residents compared to 10,000 – a seven-fold increase in a 10-year period.”

Our tourist guide's home

While visiting Mondulkiri, I asked a tour guide familiar with the region whether he kew if the forests were being protected or not.  He said there are now vast stretches of land where it is prohibited for people to cut down certain species of trees. He pointed to a checkpoint as we passed one alongside the road and said, “that’s where police stop cars and trucks to make sure they do not have any of the illegal [kinds of] lumber in their cargo.” “And if they do?” I asked. “If they do find that expensive kind of [prohibited] tree, you will have to pay,” he said, uttering expletives about government corruption, he continued, “so you still can cut down the illegal kinds [of lumber] but you will have to pay [the police].”

According to a recent article in the Phnom Penh Post, illegal logging continues despite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s efforts to make clear he would no longer tolerate military involvement in the facilitation of illegal logging. His announcement of a crackdown on all illegal logging has been largely ignored as a lack of enforcement, local official’s involvement in it, their implicit impunity, and a back-log of legal cases that would hold individuals accountable for illegal logging, all seem to contribute to a continuation of the status quo. It is clear that the current laws alone are not enough to halt natural resource destruction in the Cambodia’s forests.

International organizations including the WWF are working in the Mondulkiri and neighboring northeastern provinces where most of the wildlife crimes take place to help enforce the environmental protection in the region.  One of the guides  told us that teams from these international organizations spend weeks camped out in protected areas sleeping in hammocks deep in the forest in order to investigate suspected violations of the regulations.  As is often the case with enforcing national laws at the local level, the central government lacks presence and sometimes access to the region, and so international organizations work to fill the gap. When I asked what role the local government plays in protecting the forests he said, “the local government… we do not know. We do not know their plan.”

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