By DEBRA ACZEL and MIRIAM ACZEL
Deforestation is a major environmental threat in Cambodia
According to a study published last year in Science Advances, Cambodia has some of the world’s highest rates of deforestation.
For example, according to a World Bank report, in 1990 over 73% of the country’s land area was forest, but by 2015, the forest cover had dropped to below 54%.
And the rate of deforestation has been accelerating in recent years. Between 2001 and 2014, over 1.6 million hectares of forested land, including nearly 40% of the country’s “intact forest landscape”, described in the recent Science Advances study as a “seamless mosaic of forest and naturally treeless ecosystems”, have been lost. Global Forest Watch estimates that, in 2017 alone, Cambodia lost 118,000 hectares natural forest, representing 12.1 metric tons of emitted C02.
Cambodia experienced a severe drought in 2016 and if forest cover is not conserved, flash floods and worsening drought conditions are likely in the future.
Conservationists have been working for years to convince the Cambodian government and residents living in remote areas to reduce deforestation. One key strategy is through the community forest model, where local residents agree to conserve the designated ‘community forest.’ Under this plan, local residents can continue to farm areas already under cultivation, as well as harvest timber needed for construction, subject to permission.
However, according to Ben Davis, an American conservationist who has worked in Cambodia for nearly two decades, the community forest model is broken. Davis helped develop the community forest near Ta Bos in the Preah Vihear province, and also helped organizations set up community forests in other locales. But, according to Davis, as soon as there was no one around to ensure compliance, the community forests were logged. As he explains, “unless there’s an NGO that is living there in the forest,” the protected community forests will be logged because no one enforces protection. Wood from trees like the centuries old rosewoods and the endangered padauk are valued for their rich color and sold for thousands of dollars to make luxury furniture and musical instruments. Since 2002, it has been illegal to harvest rosewood, but there is a lucrative luxury market for it, with the wood smuggled first to Vietnam and on to its final destination: China.
Enter Cambodia’s Buddhist Monks
But environmental groups and activists working with NGOs aren’t the only ones fighting to save Cambodia’s threatened forests. Buddhists monks have come together to form organizations such as the Monks Community Forest (MCF) and the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ) in order to protect the country’s forests.
Venerable Bun Saluth, a Buddhist monk and head of the Samrong Pagoda in Oddar Meanchey Province, explained why he began the MCF: “We lost the forest and this made the temperature increase and our rain unpredictable, which lead to increased diseases and an increased release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” He recalls studying with monks in Thailand who were working to protect the environment by combining Buddhist ideals with environmental issues, and decided to bring that vision to Cambodia. He explained that when he returned to his home country after five years of studying with the monks in Thailand, he had a clear vision that his Cambodia’s forests needed to be protected, and established the Rukhavon Monk Forest Community.
Saluth explained, “When I returned home to Oddar Meanchey I realized the importance of these forests… In Thailand they have largely lost their forests and the government must replant huge areas. In Cambodia we should treasure the forests that we already have and preserve them for the next generation.” MCF is now the largest community-managed forestry project in Cambodia.
IMNSJ is an organization of 5,000 monks who work with local residents to teach them what their communities can do to reduce deforestation and why this is important. Local communities learn how to use the power of social media to create awareness of illegal logging activities. Founder Venerable Buntenh is concerned about the fate of the forests of Prey Lang, containing “luxury” timber trees as well as endangered plants and animals. Some of Cambodia’s oldest forests are being cleared to create land for plantations and illegal loggers are cutting down protected trees. Prey Lang has over 3,600 square kilometers of forest, with over 27 endangered animal and 20 endangered plant species, but large areas are already being cleared of the forest are being cleared to make room for plantations and illegal loggers have harvested expansive areas of trees from within protected areas.
Sacrifice to Lead Cambodia to a Better Place
A monk in Venerable Buntenh’s community, Horn Sophanny, says he was inspired to join the effort to protect the forests as “It is our job to lead society to a better place.”
Some of these environmentally active monks have been threatened, though, by timber poachers, police, and even other Buddhist leaders who feel monks shouldn’t be political. But the monks respond that it is their responsibility to protect the people and the resources that this rural country depends on for its future well-being.
Venerable Buntenh sums up his resolve: “But I’m ready to give everything for my people and the forest. If I have to give my life for it today or tomorrow, then I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”
Debra Aczel has over 40 years in educational program management, including as program manager at MIT’s Terrascope Program—an interdisciplinary environmental program working to solve pressing global issues. She is co-founder and current co-director of the Amir D. Aczel Foundation for Research and Education in Science and Mathematics, supporting cultural and educational projects in Cambodia.
Miriam Aczel is a President’s PhD Scholar at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, focusing on international energy and environmental science and policy. She is also Director of Communications for Leaders in Energy, and the co-founder and co-director of the Amir D. Aczel Foundation for Research and Education in Science and Mathematics in Cambodia.