26 August 2015, Mongabay news - Land concessions for large-scale agricultural plantations are stripping off Cambodia's forest cover, according to a new report by Forest Trends, a U.S.-based environmental protection group.
By the end of 2013, 2.6 million hectares – or 14 percent – of Cambodia's land had been allocated for commercial agriculture, the report found. The allocation of these land concessions has increased at an average rate of 208,141 hectares per year since 2004, the authors write.
These land concessions, they add, have been mostly given to companies from Cambodia, China and Vietnam, largely for planting rubber, sugar, and pulp and paper.
According to the report, the Cambodian government granted a total of 272 land concessions by the end of 2013. Over 80 percent of these lie within forests, the authors write, one-fourth of which occur within the boundaries of protected areas.
"These land concessions provided several actors with an entry point (and possibly a cover) to conduct extensive logging operations not only within but also outside the borders of the officially granted economic land concessions areas," the authors write in the report.
Cambodia's forests provide habitat for many unique and imperiled species, such as the banteng (Bos javanicus) – an endangered type of wild cattle, and the endangered Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti). Photo by the Prey Lang Community Network (CC BY 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons
To evaluate the extent of land cleared due to logging for timber, the Forest Trends research team looked at nearly 40,000 fire reports collated by NASA's satellites between 2012 and 2013. Since fire is often used as part of land clearance and preparation processes, such fire reports can be used to detect land clearance in real time, the authors write.
While forest fires are common in Cambodia, the team found that the fire patterns within the forest lands were quite different from the typical fire patterns of natural forests. This "indicated heavy influence of human activities," the authors explain in the report.
For instance, in evergreen forests within concession areas, the research team found an eight-fold increase in the average fire density compared to outside areas.
The team also used the fire reports to estimate the amount of carbon emitted from the burning of forest biomass. Again, they found that carbon emissions from forests within concession lands were several times higher than areas outside them.
The team also found that deforestation patterns appear to have changed.
Earlier, forest loss and degradation in Cambodia were associated with smallholder agricultural encroachment along the boundaries between extensive forest and non-forest landscapes, the authors write. But in recent years, economic land concessions have been the major drivers of deforestation in Cambodia.
While lands that are on the edge of forests are still cleared, deforestation has penetrated deep inside previously expansive forest areas, the authors add.
Between 2001 and 2013, Cambodia lost about 1.5 million hectares of tree cover due to human activities such as plantation harvesting and timber logging in concession lands, according to Global Forest Watch.
By overlaying a map of land concessions over that of Cambodian protected areas, the Forest Trends' team found that much of this deforestation had occurred within protected areas like Seima Protected Forest in Kratie province, and Tumring Wildlife Sanctuary and Boeung Per Wildlife Sanctuary in Kampong Thom province.
In fact, according to Global Forest Watch, Boeung Per Wildlife Sanctuary lost about 46,000 hectares – almost a quarter – of its tree cover between 2001 and 2013. Of this, about 31,000 hectares, or nearly 70 percent, of tree cover loss occurred between 2010 and 2013.
Despite land concessions being the major driver of deforestation in Cambodia, the authors write that both the process of granting these concessions, and the extent of land that is allocated, is replete with problems of corruption and a lack of transparency. Moreover, the legal position on allocation of these land concessions in Cambodia is hazy.
"It appears that many actors are deliberately exploiting the unclear legal situation to acquire economic land concessions on forest land in order to profit from timber harvesting during their development, with or without ultimate intentions to deliver on agricultural development commitments," the authors write in the report.
For example, according to Cambodia's Land Law, land concessions must not exceed 10,000 hectares. But the report provides examples of cases where companies own many 10,000-hectare concessions, often located adjacent to each other.
"One example is the HAGL Group which reportedly controls at least 47,000 hectares of ELCs in northeast Cambodia," the authors write. "To date, the government hasn't addressed or rectified the issue."
According to Kerstin Canby, Director of the Forest Trade and Finance Program at Forest Trends, many of the existing economic land concessions could not have been awarded if the letter and the spirit of various laws were enforced.
"So this becomes not a question of changing the legal framework but of merely enforcing existing Cambodia's laws and regulations (and constitution)," she told mongabay.com.
However, the lack of legal clarity and enforcement has meant that the timber industry has remained largely unregulated in Cambodia.
This has resulted in logging that is "secretive and demonstrates several indicators of illegality: concealed timber transports at night, fear of confrontation when detected, use of bribery, and occasionally violence," the report notes.
This pursuit of timber has also led to numerous instances of human rights abuse, where local villagers and indigenous populations have clashed with the concession operators.
Public consultation, an essential pre-condition to the granting of land concession, has often not been conducted in communities, according to a 2007 report by the United Nations Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. On several occasions, the villagers are not even informed of the concessions that eventually encroach upon their farm and forest lands or prevent access to them.
Because of such ineffective environmental and social impact assessments, local forest-inhabiting communities have been organizing and conducting patrols against logging and encroachment, and demanding accountability from national government and local officials, the Forest Trends team writes.
To prevent loss of their livelihoods, which is closely interlinked with the forest ecosystem, people had to start conservation and protection activities, Canby said. "These include patrols against illegal logging, occupations of sawmills, and demonstrations against clearing activities under the land concession scheme."
In May 2012, following growing dissent among people regarding illegal logging and loss of forest cover, the Cambodian government temporarily suspended the granting of land concessions to both domestic and foreign companies.
But this moratorium has had little effect on halting deforestation, according to Canby.
"As the report highlights, there are so many existing economic land concessions, that the overall impact [of the moratorium] may be small," Canby said.
Moreover, despite the freeze on land concessions in 2012, new land concessions have still been granted, according to media reports. Recently, the Cambodian government also reduced contract periods of some land concessions from 99 years to 50 years.
This slashing of contract periods, too, will not have much impact on preserving forest cover, Canby said.
"Monoculture crop fields are not forests. The impact of the economic land concessions scam on natural forests would be the same even if they would reduce the lease to five years."
Moreover, since timber plantations are not yet a focus of land concessions, natural forests will continue to remain the major source for timber, the Forest Trends team warns.
"Forest Trends' report would like to see a full legal assessment of the already awarded forest lands," Canby said. "Many people deem the situation so critical that a general logging moratorium on all economic land concessions be declared until this assessment has been done."