A forest saved? – Cambodia’s Phnom Tamao Protected Forest escapes logging but faces an uncertain future

A protected nature reserve was spared complete destruction when Cambodia's prime minister stepped in after a public outcry. Replanting has begun to restore the forest – but with saplings that could be for a timber plantation.

Released Elds deer at Main Lake in the Phnom Tamao forest
Released Elds deer at Main Lake in the Phnom Tamao forest. Elds deer are listed as Endangered by IUCN. Image: Wildlife Alliance

On 1 August, 2022, excavators began tearing down parts of the Phnom Tamao Protected Forest, an area of 2,300 hectares barely 40 kilometres south of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. The heavy machinery rapidly uprooted scores of trees to prepare significant parts of this last green oasis close to the capital, for development.

The Phnom Tamao Protected Forest is home to some of the country’s most endangered wildlife including endangered sambar deer, wild pigs, and rare bird species.

Since 2001, the NGO Wildlife Alliance has been running a wildlife rescue centre with the Cambodian Forestry Administration located inside the forest. The 400-hectare centre rehabilitates animals taken from poachers and wildlife traders. The rescued animals, including tigers and elephants, are, if possible, re-released into the wild, often into Phnom Tamao Protected Forest. The wildlife centre, hugely popular with both locals and tourists, receives more than 300.000 visitors a year.

For months, local media had been reporting that parts of the forest had been transferred to private ownership and that several tycoons or their companies were to receive the land. The documents seen by Cambodian journalists did not specify which part of the forest were to be destroyed nor an exact date. The beneficiaries included tycoon Khun Sea’s TP Moral Group and well-known music video producer Leng Navatra.

As heavy machinery moved in and started cutting down the trees in early August, Cambodia’s social media erupted with anger. Amid a hail of denials of responsibility by ministry officials, the director of Wildlife Alliance’s wildlife rescue and release program Nick Marx, a 20-year veteran in Cambodian wildlife conservation, told Voice of Democracy (VOD): “Phnom Tamao is like a diamond, and the people want this… there is only one way to help the mountain, and that is for the government to revoke the plans for development.”

The key value of the forest was underestimated by the developers.

Nick Marx, director, Wildlife Alliance

Given the rapid depletion of Cambodia’s forests in recent years, that did not seem likely. According to Global Forest Watch, which monitor forests using satellites, the country lost 24 per cent of its tree cover, some 2.2 million ha, between 2001 and 2018, far more than Indonesia, given its size. Almost half of the logging took place in primary rain forest which is home to countless endangered species. And while more than a quarter of Cambodia’s territory has been declared protected, significant chunks of this land have been exploited to a degree that there is little left to protect.

Much of the deforestation is driven by demand for mono-cultures such as rubber. Confrontations, sometimes violent, between the government and private companies on the one hand and activists, local stakeholders and NGOs on the other have marred the country’s image for years. But that was not the issue in Phnom Tamao. At least not at the outset of this latest example of environmental vandalism.

Phnom Tamao is endangered thanks to its proximity to Phnom Penh. At the end of the country’s long civil war in the late 1990s, the Cambodian capital was home to just one million people. Today, its population has more than doubled and the city is expanding rapidly. According to the World Bank, the city’s public transport, drainage, waste water and solid waste treatment are overwhelmed. No wonder that rural areas around the capital are swallowed up and developed, bit by bit. The grab for Phnom Tamoa did not come as a surprise. Within a week, the diggers had cleared 530 ha of forest, cutting down a vast swathe of the protected area.

Following the diggers’ assault, Wildlife Alliance sprang into action. “The key value of the forest was underestimated by the developers,” Marx says. “We made public broadcasts in support of Phnom Tamao, requesting the government not to destroy the forest. We spoke directly to well-placed people in the government.”

Marx insists that there is true value in conservation and that development does not need to mean turning the forest into yet another satellite city.

“Phnom Tamao is well known to Cambodians. It’s a popular weekend getaway for city folks and for some people it holds spiritual significance. People heard our concerns clearly, and suggestions for boycotts of the developers and involved companies appeared on social media. I think if we had been more strident or had called for public protests, the aggression would have been quickly returned.”

Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon dismissed online protests on Saturday, 13 August and suggested that animals would not be harmed by clearing part of the forest.

But on Sunday, 14 April, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is facing an election next year, ordered the clearance to be stopped, a hugely surprising turnaround. The land transfer was canceled, the forest was put under the protection of the Agriculture Ministry and the cleared area was to be replanted. On the same day, the developer spear-heading the logging fell in line with the prime minister and asked the public to help replant the destroyed area.

On Tuesday, 16 April, the prime minister ordered his personal bodyguard to decamp to the forest. A thousand soldiers were instructed to manage the removal of the newly felled wood and help organize the replanting process. They arrested, harassed and beat several VOD journalists and environmental activists from Khmer Thavarak, who were following up on the story they had reported in the first place. Violence against journalists who investigate illegal logging is commonplace in Cambodia.

Marx also attempted to enter the logged area but was stopped by police. He is relieved the forest and wildlife centre have been saved.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen sent a powerful message that the forest is protected in perpetuity. If he had not stepped in, we’re not sure how long we could have continued the wildlife rescue centre. A lot of work of the past 20 years would have been lost.”

But what took a few short days to destroy, will take decades to regrow and Phnom Tamao has changed forever. A royal decree published on 19 August, now divides the forest into three distinct areas - a wildlife sanctuary of 1,021ha, an area replanted with luxury woods of 530ha and another 474ha for the rescue, treatment and rehabilitation of wildlife and tourism. This does protect the Phnom Tamao from urban development, but the rare, endangered wildlife, its freedom significantly curtailed, will pay a high price for years to come.

It is less risky to criticise Cambodian government policies from outside the country. The Southeast Asia Globe quotes Chiang Mai based academic Stephen Elliott, co-founder and research director at Chiang Mai University’s Forest Restoration Research Unit, who says that the replanting is taking place too late in the season and consequently many saplings are likely to die. Elliott suggests that the three tree species replacing the 80 indigenous species that previously grew at Phnom Tamao, are in fact plantation wood and that the number of trees being planted is insufficient.

Marx remains confident that the destroyed parts of the forest can be rehabilitated and that the wildlife centre will to continue to function.

“I feel that this decision by the Prime Minister and subsequent Royal Decree should be sufficient to deter anyone with different ideas in the future. I have heard that some think that this might not be completely straight forward. I feel, indeed sincerely hope, that they are reading too much into this, and that the salvation of Phnom Tamao will help towards other forests being valued and conserved effectively, a prelude perhaps to renewed efforts to preserve Cambodian nature and wildlife. Wildlife Alliance look forward to our future cooperation with the government to conserve the country’s natural heritage.”

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