Between 2000 and 2005 Cambodia lost nearly thirty percent of its tropical hardwood forest cover. Since then even more has been lost (though there are no reported figures) and if you’re travelling through the provinces of Pailin, Kompong Thom, Kratie, Rattanakiri or Mondulkiri you’ll now scarcely see any forest at all, with the situation not much better around Koh Kong. Most of the forest has been cleared to make way for plantations of rubber, cashew and cassava, a national scandal presided over by self-serving government officials, many of them close to the Prime Minister, Hun Sen.
From 1995 to 1999 multinational conglomerates were awarded logging concessions and used earth-moving equipment to extract massive hardwood trees from deep in the jungle, frequently destroying everything else in their path. This timber was generally shipped on to Thailand or Vietnam, to be turned into garden furniture and sold to Europe. The revenue from this should have swelled the treasury coffers, but instead, high-ranking officials, many military personnel, suddenly became very rich.
Despite being lobbied by environmentalists, the Cambodian government lacked the resources and the will to enforce the terms of its logging licences and it wasn’t until 1999, when the aid donors insisted on independent monitoring of logging as a condition of aid provision, that the government reluctantly allowed a watchdog group, London-based Global Witness, to investigate the situation. But things were so bad that by 2003 Global Witness had been sacked by the Cambodian government who took exception to the frank reports that denounced it for poor management of the forests and associated corruption at the highest level. For a time the government seemed to be making some attempts to improve things; but no sooner were logging concessions terminated than they were replaced by economic land concessions, which allowed for the wholesale clearance of forest and stripped the land bare.
Monitoring, although set as a condition of aid provision by the donors themselves – who include Asian Development Bank, World Bank and International Monetary Fund – has not been reinstated and no action has been taken by the donors to limit aid that is being poured into Cambodia at a rate of $1 billion per annum. Meanwhile, the Cambodian government has hawked the rights to the country’s other natural resources, including oil, minerals and even sand (with buyers including Total, Chevron and BHP Billiton), with resultant revenues lining the pockets of the country’s elite.