Development actors bet on political power shift to save Cambodia's forgotten forest

Members of the Khunpeap community forest patrol load the remnants of an illegally felled resin tree. Timber chopped and left is taken to a communal space to be used for construction within the village. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

They arrive on foot wearing tall rubber boots and faded army fatigues. Others appear on motorbikes, baseball hats pulled low against northern Cambodia’s steamy afternoon haze. They trickle in until 11 men and three women stand around a heavy wooden table or sit on rough-cut stump stools.

They’re the community forest patrol of Kunpheap, a 734-person village in Cambodia’s vast Preah Vihear province, and it’s their 395-hectare forest they’ve gathered to protect.

The night before, commune council member Kuch Sour heard the telltale buzz of a chainsaw in the nearby community forest — parcels of land recognized by the Cambodian government as usable by local residents for resin and other natural resource collection. It’s a sure sign of foul play, he said, as only those sourcing wood for new home construction are permitted to use one.

Still, the rev of a chainsaw rips through the air almost daily.  

The village of Kunpheap sits in one of four provinces home to Prey Lang, a biologically diverse and threatened lowland evergreen forest sweeping across a vast segment of a northern Cambodia largely untouched by tourism. An estimated 250,000 people live in the 340 villages within or next to the forest, many of whom rely on the landscape for their livelihoods. The group of men and women preparing to set out on a several hour patrol in Kunpheap is just one of 41 community forest patrols supported by Winrock International that volunteer several hours a week to search out and expose anyone involved in tree harvesting, land clearing or wildlife poaching — all illegal acts that still take place regularly.

But in a country rife with political corruption, the task of forest protection is too often ill-fated, no matter the level of community buy-in.

Recently, Cambodia’s prime minister signed a series of decrees placing the responsibility of Prey Lang protection with the Ministry of Environment and provincial governments. It’s a promising change, development professionals and conservation activists tell Devex, as a combination of stronger national and local government cooperation and a corruption crackdown can help ensure the future of the forest. With illegal logging showing no signs of slowing, the development community is now banking on the positive social pressure the new governance model could create.

The Khunpeap community patrol heads into the forest on a homemade “cow machine.”

A political power shift

Community patrols have to date unsuccessfully attempted to squash small-scale illegal logging. It’s stronger governance and cross-sector collaboration that will put an end to it, according to Curtis Handley, Winrock’s Supporting Forests and Biodiversity project chief of party.

Since the early 2000s, grass-roots conservation organizations such as the Prey Lang Community Network have convened forest patrols, and Winrock has supported community member patrols for the past year, though it’s been a continuous uphill battle with little government support, according to Joel Jurgens, deputy chief of party for the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded SFB.

That changed in May 2016, when development stakeholders and conservation activists celebrated a win decades in the making: Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen’s signature designating almost 432,000 hectares of Prey Lang as a wildlife sanctuary.

Four months later, the prime minister issued a decree to transfer the management of all protected areas and forest conservation from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to the Ministry of Environment, at the same time assigning unprecedented authority to provincial governments to manage their own forest protection efforts.

Winrock is currently focused on advising provincial governors on natural resource management best practices, as the PM-issued directive didn’t include guidance.

In March, all 27 provincial governors will report to Prime Minister Hun Sen their natural resource protection activities and wins, and Stung Trang Governor HE Mom Saroeun “is going to be the star,” Jurgens said of the political leader’s interest in adopting new templates and reporting structures.

Stung Trang is also the chosen location for the pilot of community co-patrolling — the melding of current community patrol members with local authorities and national government rangers in an effort to ensure more regular sweeps and assign greater power to patrol units; current community patrols can do little beyond presenting perpetrators with a written warning.

Both decrees provide a game-changing opportunity for forest preservation, according to Winrock, not least because the Ministry of Environment, led by HE Say Samal, has already proved to be a more active proponent of natural resource management, reforming its own ministry and assigning 70 new forest rangers to Prey Lang.

It’s still a paltry number when looking at the amount of land in need of protection, noted Josie Cohen, senior campaigner at nonprofit advocacy organization Global Witness. But it’s progress considering Winrock’s first task under the SFB project, active in the region since 2012, was to convince the public that Prey Lang still exists.

Katank Yos, communication specialist at Winrock, was himself unfamiliar with the vast forest prior to his work on the project, he told Devex. Many other Cambodians have taken a more extreme stance, asserting that “Prey Lang is no more, that it’s already destroyed,” he said.

Early in the project, Winrock set to work capturing drone footage of vivid green treetops and featuring 30-second videos rich with the sound of hornbills and gibbons in local movie theaters to remind everyone of its existence. But there is a shred of truth to the rumor of Prey Lang’s demise. Forest loss in Cambodia from 2001 to 2014 accelerated at 14.4 percent, a faster rate than in any other country in the world, according to research from the World Resources Institute and University of Maryland.

In Prey Lang, valuable resin trees — which can be tapped to collect substances used to manufacture varnish, soap, sealing wax and torches — are lost every day.

Members of the Khunpeap community forest patrol take a break while out on a 3-hour patrol. An estimated 250,000 people live in the 340 villages within or next to the Prey Lang forest, many of whom rely on the landscape for their livelihoods. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

One win, many losses

The challenge is immense. Government directives haven’t yet changed much activity on the ground, according to Khin Khourn, the locally elected chief of forest management in Dong Phlet village, also in Preah Vihear province.

Many community members rely on rice farming for their livelihood, and earn supplemental income from collecting and selling forest products such as resin. Their neighbors, meanwhile, are chopping down resin trees to make quick money selling the above-average quality timber.

A member of the Khunpeap community patrol demonstrates what resin can do.

In February, Khourn discovered several felled resin trees while out on patrol. He knows the names of the loggers, he told Devex: They live in the same district. On another patrol, he encountered military police illegally fishing on community land.

“They threatened me, ‘If you take pictures, we will kill you,’” he said.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence. A young forest activist was attacked in March 2016 by unidentified perpetrators in Kratie province, and more than half of PLCN monitors have been threatened by loggers and government authorities, according to the network.

Large-scale corruption remains rampant, Global Witness’ Cohen told Devex. The creation of an anti logging task force in early 2016 has done little to change the fact that heavy military involvement persists in illegal logging in the country.

“Some are ‘protecting’ the forest, but also cutting it,” Winrock’s Yos explained of corrupt patrol members as well as local authorities, adding that he has at times been reduced to thinking the only way to protect the forest is to “build a giant wall around it, like the Great Wall of China.”

The extent of the corruption leaves dedicated patrol members like Khourn frustrated, especially when he feels local government is unresponsive to his reports. Still, he’s made it his personal mission to protect the forest, and said he’ll continue to do so with or without government or NGO support.

If Winrock staff have learned one thing, though, it’s that individual champions in the fight for forest protection aren’t enough — unless they hold political power and are willing to use it for good.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has for the most part addressed large scale logging, according to Sopheap Sao, adviser and director of cabinet at the MoE.

“It’s the rampant small scale illegal logging that remains challenging,” he told Devex.

But both large and small varieties of the illegal activity seemingly still plague Cambodia’s forests. Since the presence of a blanket ban by the Cambodian government on all trade in Siamese rosewood in 2013, for example, Laos and Cambodia have exported a combined volume of the precious timber equivalent to 120 percent of the largest known remaining populations of the species, according to a Red Alert report from the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.

Meanwhile, in Prey Lang, committed community forest patrols continue to try to protect the land they depend on, a model Cohen said must continue to be supported. “It’s been proven again and again globally that if you give communities stewardship of their own natural resources, that is the best way of protecting them in the long term,” she said.

Despite the challenges of local political corruption and threats, participation is strong in Winrock-supported community patrols, which have traveled a combined 13,776 kilometers and observed or provided verbal or written warnings to 207 people involved in illegal activities since November 2015.

There are concerns of sustainability when the project’s extension ends in June. Currently, Winrock-supported patrol groups receive a monthly stipend for fuel, but several members of the Khunpeap patrol told Devex they will be unable to continue patrolling without monetary compensation. Phuth Soueng, Chhaep II commune chief, is considering ways to financially support the community patrols, he said, but the commune investment fund has already been approved without patrol allocation for 2016.

USAID’s forecast shows another $10 to $25 million toward improving the overall management of Prey Lang to be awarded mid-2017, with investments at both the subnational and national level.

A call for patience and positivity

Patrol members are currently encouraged to report illegal activity to their commune chief, but Chhaep II’s Soueng has never received any reports from the patrol team, which he doesn’t find surprising considering he has no authority to punish those engaged in logging.

It’s a fact that funding can’t change, but co-patrolling can.  

Patience, more than anything, is valuable as changes continue to unfold, Handley told Devex.

“There are certainly residual problems from having the Forestry Administration in charge of [natural resource management] for 20 years, and some perceptions won’t change overnight, but the Ministry of Environment is not the FA,” Handley said, alluding to the allegations of widespread illegal logging schemes inside the administration.  

Now, Winrock is looking to social pressure created by co-management to help stem corruption as well. If a Forestry Administration official with a side business cutting and selling logs is requested to patrol with forest people in areas where he has been felling trees, “they’ll develop a network and relationships and all this confusion will become clear,” Handley said.

If the co-patrolling model succeeds in Prey Lang, there’s potential to transfer it to other contexts in Cambodia and elsewhere, he added.

“It is easy for people who have lived here a long time, and especially those who have been in this forestry sector, to become cynical,” Handley said. “But based on Cambodian cultural and social norms, this [co-patrolling] model is highly likely to work,” he said. “Can it go wrong?  Maybe, but not with the level of political support we are observing since mid-2016,” he said. “We think it is real.”

The Ministry of Environment’s Sao assured Devex it’s real, too. He hopes, with continued focus on strong leadership and livelihoods, he said, to soon be able to visit Prey Lang or Cambodia’s forested eastern plains without glimpsing freshly cut timber on the back of homemade wood hauling rigs.

Cohen, meanwhile, is still waiting for on the ground, practical action to prove political will to end illegal logging. Military officials being arrested for their involvement would be a start, she said.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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