Under cover of Covid-19, loggers ravage Cambodian wildlife sanctuary

Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia has lost almost a fifth of its forest cover since 2010, largely to agricultural expansion, illegal logging, and land grabbing.

Green peafowl at the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary Cambodia
Green peafowl usually found at the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri and Kratié provinces, Cambodia. The sanctuary hosts some of the last known populations of threatened species. Image: Cambodia Bird Guide Association Facebook page

Nestled in the far reaches of eastern Cambodia lies Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the nation’s most vital areas of protected forest and a haven for rare wildlife. Yet right now, it’s also seeing frequent visits from well-documented human predators. Exploitative agricultural companies and illegal loggers, operating with renewed vigor under the cover of the global pandemic, have ravaged large areas of the park, free from fear of investigation by international NGOs.

First established as Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in 2002, the protected area was later named Seima Protection Forest in 2009, before finally becoming Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016. In terms of biodiversity, the entire site is of global significance. Nearly a thousand plant, fungi and animal species have been recorded within the area, and many Bunong, a minority ethnic group indigenous to Cambodia, claim the sanctuary as their ancestral homeland.

The jungle within the 3,000-square-kilometer (1,160-square-mile) sanctuary supports the world’s largest known populations of several threatened species, most notably the black-shanked douc langur (Pygathrix nigripes) and southern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus gabriellae). Keo Seima’s southern border, which rubs shoulders with Vietnam, remains a haven for elephants that make a home among tropical evergreen, mixed deciduous, semi-evergreen and deciduous dipterocarp forest.

Yet even such a crucial and recognised shelter for wildlife and Indigenous peoples has slipped into Cambodia’s predictable tale of loss. Between 2001 and 2019, Keo Seima lost 21 per cent of its forest, much of it old growth, according to satellite data from the Global Land Analysis and Discovery lab at the University of Maryland (UMD).

While annual tree cover loss had been decreasing since its peak in 2014 (4 per cent loss that year), 2019 showed double the amount of loss (1.4 per cent) compared to 2018 (0.72 per cent). In 2020, this rise shows no sign of slowing, with the UMD data recording more than 29,000 tree cover loss alerts so far this year.

Researchers say the consequences of deforestation in the region are severe, affecting not only native animal and tree species, but also the Bunong. Residing primarily in the province of Mondulkiri, the Bunong comprise the nation’s largest highland Indigenous group. Its members have grown vulnerable not only due to deforestation but also thanks to what they and advocates say is an increasingly unsympathetic government.

In May, more than 200 Bunong protested after being denied access to farmland in Keo Seima, a move Cambodia’s environment ministry said was a consequence of conservation laws. Kroeung Tola, a representative of the Bunong, told local media they should be entitled to land rights under a law that promises state land for traditional or communal farming in protected area. Acquiring these protections, however, can be highly challenging due to a lengthy and costly application process.

Keo Seima was twice included on Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) “Last of the Wild” list (in the early ’90s and in 2004), a compilation of areas least affected by human activity. Yet while the Bunong have at times been prohibited from subsistence farming to survive, others have invaded the sanctuary to farm and log for profit. By 2018, the situation had deteriorated so much that a forest protection ranger, a military police officer and a staff member from WCS were shot dead confronting illegal loggers.

A WCS staff member working on their Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary REDD+ Project, which advocates for protection of rangers, forest and the provision of legal land titles to Indigenous communities, said most of the forest loss is due to agricultural expansion.

“In large part, it is land-grabbing and small-scale agricultural expansion — the agriculture being small-scale, not the expansion, which is significant,” the WCS worker, who asked to remain anonymous for safety concerns, told Mongabay via email. “Most valuable trees in this area were removed long ago. Cassava and cashew farm expansion … and land-grabbing for speculation, especially in the new border road, are major drivers here.”

The phenomenon the WCS staff member describes certainly isn’t new. Even recent deforestation in Keo Seima, along with other protected areas like Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary and Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, can be traced back to the introduction of Cambodia’s highly controversial economic land concessions (ELCs). These ELCs are areas of land, often in protected areas, allocated by the government to corporations aiming to invest in agriculture for short-term financial gain. They were first introduced in 1996, and although the practice officially ended in 2012, glaring loopholes have essentially allowed the practice to continue.

According to WCS, private companies now running ELCs in Keo Seima include Wuzhishan L.S Group Company, Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG), Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 1 Company, and Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 2 Company. If the names of the last two companies appear essentially identical, you’re getting close to the root of the problem. According to Cambodian law, ELC companies are limited to 100 km2 (39 mi2) each, but regularly get around this restriction by registering as multiple entities under slightly different names.

In December 2017, a former chairman of VRG was investigated for channeling $114.4 million into investments in other businesses. The Vietnamese state-run company, which currently operates in seven Cambodian provinces via 19 subsidiaries and turned over an estimated $1.28 billion in 2019, plans to acquire an additional nearly 200 km2 (77 mi2) in 2020.

Neither Keo Seima’s director, the Cambodian Ministry of Environment, Wuzhishan L.S Group nor VRG responded to requests for comment about the recent tree cover loss in Keo Seima. Contact information for Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 1 Company and Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 2 Company was not available at the time this story was produced.

Other significant barriers to conserving protected forest include recent government bans on the use of satellite imagery to track illegal logging. This has made monitoring areas like Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary, which has seen hundreds of hectares cut down by industrial-scale machines, even more difficult. Crystal Davis, director of Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online platform that visualises satellite data on land cover change, told Reuters that Cambodia was not the first country that had attempted to censure or discredit their data.

Having a significant portion of the sanctuary’s boundary running against the border of Vietnam doesn’t help, either. In 2018, two areas of protected forest, including Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary, were dissolved by royal decree after being almost entirely stripped of forest, with much of the timber flowing into neighboring Vietnam.

The Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) agreement between Vietnam and the European Union, which came into effect in June 2019, supposedly ensures that all timber exported to the EU from Vietnam has legal, verifiable origins. In reality, the accord also feeds a thriving illegal cross-border trade between Cambodia and Vietnam, as rare timber, such as Siamese rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis), is laundered through a quota system in Vietnam, ultimately giving it lawful status.

Marcus Hardtke, an expert who’s worked on forest issues in Cambodia since 1996 with a number of NGOs and who spent five years with international watchdog organisation Global Witness in the early 2000s, said the cross-border trade of logs between Vietnam and Cambodia is thriving.

“There is still a steady stream of timber from Seima protected area across the border into Vietnam,” he said. “It is more diverse now, often at night, but it continues. And it almost always involves people in uniform at several levels. It’s a balanced system of bribes and influence. If this balance is disturbed, violence can occur.”

With the Covid-19 pandemic raging across the world, international organizations are unable to access protected areas. The UK-based Environment Investigation Agency (EIA) said it hasn’t been able to get anyone to Cambodia for months.

“Assessing Cambodian cross-border transportation is rather challenging, especially since travel is not allowed at the moment,” said EIA forest campaigner Thomas Chung. “As part of our country monitoring, we do record publicly available media reports on relevant seizures and activities.”

Chung said the organization’s reports actually showed a decline in cross-border trade. But he said sales of high-risk timber have still been identified in records and, crucially, their figures do not include numbers from illegal trading.

With international NGOs essentially locked out of the county, the responsibility of deforestation monitoring falls on Cambodian law enforcement efforts, which, on paper, appear to support conservation efforts in Keo Seima to reduce forest loss and safeguard the livelihoods of the Bunong population. Since 2001, several acts of legislation have been introduced, designed to award land titles to Indigenous communities inside the boundaries of the wildlife sanctuary.

However, conservationists say the government’s intentions are not playing out in practice.

“The apparent aims of these legislative acts are noble, and something on paper we support – ensuring legal recognition of traditionally owned lands, especially for indigenous [Bunong] people,” the WCS staff member said. “But the reality of its implementation is that land has, and likely will, be given to anyone who can establish a veneer of legitimacy to a claim of historical use. We strongly support legal titles for indigenous communities, and this has and continues to be a major part of our work in Keo Seima.”

WCS is among very few conservation NGOs working in Keo Seima. In the current circumstances, it’s almost impossible to speak to anybody with any real knowledge of the issues in the region, which is largely due to the opaqueness brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, but also a lack of responsiveness on behalf of environmental NGOs. Of at least seven Cambodia-based organisations Mongabay contacted over the past year for two separate stories, only one was prepared to speak on record about the issue being investigated. Most didn’t respond at all.

“The big corporate western NGOs see themselves as service providers to ‘assist the government’,” Hardtke said. “They don’t address organised forest crime. In the case of Keo Seima, they changed the maps and called the Vietnamese robbery ‘planned/authorised deforestation’ on their maps, which is not their concern under REDD [the UN’s forest protection programme], as they see it. That’s only ‘unplanned deforestation’ done by the little guys. So these NGOs are quite in harmony with the local rangers they ‘assist’.”

Hardtke said the value of environment NGOs in Cambodia is in carrying out ecological surveys and providing support in the form of equipment and logistics, yet added they engage at mid-management level with a “mediocre ministry” and therefore have very limited influence. “They shy away from the necessary confrontation as it would risk their business model,” he said. “It’s not the fault of certain individuals in the scene, it’s a systemic problem.”

The tale of Keo Seima isn’t just that of one sanctuary, but rather the narrative of an entire nation. A quick look at Global Forest Watch shows large portions of Cambodia covered in the bright pink that denotes extensive tree cover loss, much of it supplanting the dark green that signifies primary forest. And Cambodia’s government appears to be doing little to address the issue on a local or national level.

“Local authorities are complicit,” Hardtke said. “Large parts of Keo Seima got destroyed in 2013/14 when the government handed over the best, most carbon-rich evergreen forest areas to notorious Vietnamese rubber companies, despite Keo Seima being a protected area and a REDD project site. The Vietnamese cleared over 30,000 hectares [300 km2, or 116 mi2] and trucked the logs across the border to Vietnam. They also logged surrounding areas with impunity.”

When it comes to alleged government corruption, Hardtke does not mince his words.

“In cases like Seima, [authorities] go after the small guy who built a hut along a forest trail. That is, if the guy is not part of a land-grabbing scheme organised by more powerful locals and outside investors,” he said. “In that case, authorities, like rangers, are bribed or coerced into cooperating. Deals like the multimillion dollar Vietnamese timber grab are just beyond the radar of park management. Such deals are done by the Phnom Penh mafia and untouchable. Lower levels are paid off.

“Cambodian authorities prey on the poor and serve the rich.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.


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