With proper, sustainable management, Cambodia’s forests could represent a valuable source of income, not just in terms of providing timber, but also as a focus for ecotourism. Regrettably, the last few decades have seen the country’s forest cover decline dramatically – a 2005 survey by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggested that it has decreased by 2.5 million hectares since 1990. Initially the deforestation was due to logging, mainly illegally for timber, but more recently they have been cleared in vast swathes to make way for plantations, such as rubber in Kompong Cham province, and more worryingly, for the illegal production of the drug MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, in the Cardamom Mountains.
In 2001, the Cambodian government (forced by the World Bank) began to take action to reduce some of the most glaring environmental abuses. However, the government soon fell out with Global Witness (globalwitness.org), the environmental watchdog appointed by the Bank to monitor Cambodia’s forests, when its findings were not to its liking. In June 2007, a damning report issued by Global Witness naming a number of high-ranking government officials as using the country’s resources for personal gain was met with derision; the government responded by calling for heads to roll at Global Witness. In the meantime, more than a decade after a cessation in logging was announced, little has really happened and the country’s natural resources continue to diminish at an alarming rate.
Cambodia’s forests are home to a vast, diverse wildlife population, including globally threatened species including the tiger. Ironically, the improvements in infrastructure that followed the establishment of the country’s national parks in 1993 have sometimes made it easier for poachers to capture wild animals, which are either sold in local markets for the pot or used to produce medicines and charms. Until a government clampdown in 2001 it was possible to buy game taken from the Kirirom park, particularly venison, along NR4 nearby, while restaurants specializing in rare meats such as pangolin were easy to find in Phnom Penh. Nowadays, this appears to have mostly stopped and you’ll see anti-hunting posters along NR4 instead, although poachers still sell their bounty on the black market.
Despite its official stance on logging and poaching, Cambodia appears to lack the will to implement sound conservation policies. Most recently, concessions have been granted to international companies to explore for oil and gas offshore, and – after a nifty change in the law – for bauxite, gold and copper in a protected area of Mondulkiri. Though it could be that the government simply doesn’t recognize the long-term implications of the present shambles, ecological organizations claim that exploiting the country’s natural resources offers just too many tempting opportunities for personal profit – witness the current situations at Bokor and Botum Sakor (see Arrival and departure) national parks.