As you approach Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, five hours north of Phnom Penh, it’s difficult to tell exactly where the park begins. There is no audience of trees to greet you, no sign to welcome you. In many areas, there are no trees at all, the land more reminiscent of parched African savannah than Southeast Asian rainforest. Where trees do appear, they stand in uniform rows, with vessels taped to their trunks – archetypal features of rubber plantations.
While each area of terrain differs from the other, they typify the decimation of protected forest that’s ravaged the once great Beng Per for more than a decade. Vigilante groups and land defenders are going against the grain and doing what they can to protect the jungle, but they’re exceptional cases in a wider tale of loss. When first established in 1993, the park covered 2,425 square kilometers. By 2000, 1,990 square kilometers of forest remained, of which more than half – 1,020 square kilometers – was lost between 2001 and 2018, with the heaviest damage occurring from 2010 onward.
This trend shows no sign of slowing. The Global Land Analysis and Discovery lab at the University of Maryland detected more than 27,000 deforestation alerts between January 1 and April 25 this year. The consequences are dire, affecting not only native tree and animal species, but also the communities that call the forest their home.
It doesn’t take long to discover part of what’s causing this. Shortly after dawn, truck after truck, each packed full of freshly cut logs, trundle down the main highway heading south from the sanctuary. Outside every home lie vast piles of timber, comprised of various species.
Cashing in forests for rubber and bedposts
Beng Per’s deforestation 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 gains. Some of the most notorious companies that now run ELCs in Beng Per include Try Pheap (named after a prominent businessman), numerous Chinese businesses, and five companies belonging to Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG). The government began allocating these concessions in 1996. The practice was officially ended in 2012, although proposals for concessions made that year were allowed to go ahead.
Before ELCs were issued for the area in 2011, the sanctuary was a crucial haven for wildlife. A photo taken in July that year shows forest clearance ordered by Na Marady, business tycoon and chief executive of the agro-development firm TTY, on the west side of Try Pheap’s concession near O Pou. Thriving forest is clearly visible in the background, which was once home to some of Cambodia’s rarest and most endangered species, including banteng, pileated gibbons, silvery langurs, sambar deer and Asian elephants.
The forest also contained highly valuable Siamese rosewood and dry dipterocarp tree species. The timber from these trees is highly sought after in China, where a single carved rosewood bedpost can fetch US$1 million. As rosewood continues to get rarer and harder to find, prices rise, which further feeds an already insatiable logging industry.
Cambodia’s prime minister and former Khmer Rouge member, Hun Sen, has repeatedly gone on record about trying to protect the forest and clamp down on illegal logging. Yet media reports continue to chronicle suspected links between illegal logging and those in the highest levels of his government, including his own office. Meanwhile, independent, critical press has been crushed in the country over the last few years, with criticism from the Cambodia Daily silenced, the Phnom Penh Post taken over by a Malaysian PR company loyal to Sen, and advocacy group Global Witness exiled from the nation following an exposé that described Try Pheap as a man running “an all-encompassing illegal logging network that relies on the collusion of state officials and supposed enforcement agencies.”
Try Pheap, an increasingly prominent figure in Cambodia, remains closely tied to Hun Sen, whose administration has held onto power for 21 years. Try Pheap holds the title Oknha, a term reserved only for those who have donated more than $100,000 to the government. His company owns a 100-square-kilometer rubber plantation in Beng Per.
According to Cambodian law, ELC companies are limited to 100 square kilometers each, but they regularly get around this restriction by registering as multiple entities under slightly different names; a resident in Ankrong Village said one new plantation in Beng Per was simply called “China Company.” This creates a loophole and means businesses can legally grab another 100 square kilometers.
Over time, however, the market became saturated and rubber prices fell. When the Cambodian government first proposed ELCs, rubber prices were high – a ton of raw latex sold for around $5,000 in 2010. Now, that figure is closer to $1,800 per ton. Exploring the park today, one can clearly see many plantation owners have shifted to cashew farms to increase their earnings, despite investing thousands of dollars per hectare setting up rubber plantations in the first place.
New drivers, same problem
Meas Nhim, the park director of Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, has worked in forests for 25 years. “Law enforcement,” he said, “is our main duty here.” In the yard outside his office lie piles of confiscated timber and furniture loaded into the back of a pickup truck that his rangers seized from the border with Thailand. In this case, the loggers used trucks made to resemble military vehicles.
“We work for the community,” Meas Nhim said. “We’ve set up nine Community Protected Areas, which cover around 20,000 hectares. We’ve also been reforesting areas. Since last year, we’ve planted around 400,000 luxury timber trees. We work with rangers first to try and stop illegal activity, deal with complaints in the court, and some offenders end up in jail.”
Despite the scale of the deforestation and the arrests made by the park authorities, Meas Nhim says large-scale illegal logging is not the major driver behind Beng Per’s forest loss. “There is just logging from the normal communities – local people cutting for their daily use only.”
Exploring the sanctuary’s western stretches, however, tells a different story. While logging is legal within the bounds of ELCs, forest outside of them is also being cleared. The sound of chainsaws is ubiquitous, while heavy equipment that the locals call “mechanical cows” often rattle past with cut logs. The landscape feels more like a timber-processing yard than a sanctuary. The skeletal frames of recently felled trees litter the ground for kilometers, some with wilted leaves, others still adorned with fresh foliage, evidently cut down earlier that day. Many have sections sawn out, the rest of the trunk abandoned. A drone image from the area reveals the extent of these mass forest clearances, and that’s just in one location.
While the government stopped officially allocating ELCs in 2012, extensive illegal logging and expansion of plantations continues. Darany*, a senior resident in Beng Per’s Ankrong village, said people from neighboring provinces such as Siem Reap or Kampong Thom move in and set up basic wooden houses to claim and gain access to the land. They then cut down all nearby trees.
What’s more, this is occurring in a plethora of locations across the park.
Mom Seth, a security guard at a Chinese plantation in Sangkom Thmei, said he has “caught a lot of loggers, but they don’t log anymore because the plantation is finished.”
A resident of Svay Patt village, who asked to remain anonymous, said some companies are still directly logging and establishing plantations — and displacing the people who live there in the process.
“The Chinese companies go in at night, cut down the trees and grab the land,” the resident said. “Sometimes they pay the villagers to leave. It’s not much, maybe $1,000. But people here have no money and are desperate so accept it and leave. Then the companies log the area and build plantations.”
Bamboo structures, devoid of any tarpaulin that might make them resemble homes, regularly appear beside the dusty track that leads deep inside the sanctuary’s western reaches, to Ankrong village. According to Danary, 60 families have lived in the area for decades; but recent arrivals have massively expanded the local population.
“People from Kampong Thom province moved here, so just last month a new village area was made for them,” he said. “They come from Kampong Thom and from Sangkom Thmei and cut down the trees here. I don’t think they do it for the Vietnamese company, they cut it for themselves and sell it.”
Danary said 200 new families have moved in just west of Ankrong. He said all high-value trees have been removed, so these new residents have resorted to cutting down fruit trees.
“They asked the village chief if they could settle here,” he said. “They came here and started planting cashew trees. And now the original villagers in Ankrong, we work for these newcomers. But really, we work like slaves for these people.”
As Danary spoke, he sat with a group of young men, women and children from his village. On a TV in the house behind them, a wildlife documentary played. “There are no more animals here now,” he said, gesturing toward the TV. “Back in 2017 and 2018, I used to see banteng, but not anymore. The children here, if they ever saw a tiger outside, I think they would be confused or think it’s another animal, because they only see it on TV.” (The last verified sighting of a tiger in Cambodia was in 2007.)
Some of the most recent plantation expansion has occurred near O Pou, only a few kilometers from the main highway that crosses the sanctuary.
Sothea*, a community forest leader from Preah Vihear province, said the nearby plantations are operated by Cambodian companies owned by Na Marady and Try Pheap. “The companies around here, they expand their land without any agreement,” he said. “They hire migrant people from nearby provinces to come and carry out clearances. They pose as landless people and set up homes. These people also invade the forest to find land and create houses. On the way here, I saw many new arrivals.”
Community residents say promises of employment made to them by rubber companies remain unfulfilled. That’s the case for Mealea*, a villager in O Pou, who said the situation today is markedly different than what the companies initially promised her. In addition to a lack of employment, she said the companies established plantations in areas without the consent of those to whom the land belonged.
“Many people living in my community lost their farmland,” she said. “Around 2 to 10 hectares each, because their land is in the community area the companies expanded their plantations into. They just went in and grabbed the land. We tried to sue the companies and get our land back, but it didn’t work. We received no compensation.
“I still have a small area of forest left, next to my farm. I don’t want them to cut it down, but they threaten that if our community doesn’t allow them to, they will bulldoze it anyway.”
Protecting what remains
Several initiatives have had some success protecting the forest, such as Betreed Adventures, an ecotourism operation in neighboring Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary. At first sight, it appears much of the wildlife from Beng Per has fled to this newly protected area. Macaque monkeys move among nearby branches, peacocks flurry around, and a wild gibbon swings from the rafters of the building that serves as Betreed’s office. A huge sign hangs on display, highlighting the support received from the Cambodian government.
Betreed has been operating in the area for six years. After initially trying to establish a presence in Beng Per, it ultimately set up a community forest further north in an area that had more intact native forest and a bigger wildlife presence. It’s now officially a wildlife sanctuary, with a core area of around 70 square kilometers and a wider conservation area of 420 square kilometers, which was officially established in 2017. It has not, however, been an easy transition.
“The first five years we basically just cooperated with the villagers,” said co-founder Ben Davis. “We organized a team of rangers to patrol the forest. The first year, we were pretty easygoing with the loggers. We made signs, spoke to them, told them we’re protecting the area now. But they didn’t understand. It was a bit tough convincing them we wanted to protect the forest and that we’re not just trying to raise the price.”
Eventually, Davis and his colleagues had to resort to more severe measures to deter logging. He said hunting is also taking a toll on the wildlife of the area.
“We actually had to catch a couple and get them put in jail to get that point across,” he said. “That stopped the logging in its tracks for a while. We’ve had 17 arrests this year, but even with that much law enforcement, there was a gunshot this morning. We saw dog tracks. One of the workers came and blocked the road and saw a dog coming from the forest, so [that means] people are hunting. They’re prepared to catch anything they come across – monitor lizards, deer, civet cats, banteng, peacocks, pangolin.… The more endangered, the more valuable they are.”
Davis said they’ve run education workshops for local residents on the advantages of protecting the forest; but when people believe companies are going to keep buying up the forest anyway, they want to log it before it’s all gone. He told of how, last year, villagers cut down the largest remaining rosewood tree in the area, which was worth around $100,000. Davis reported it to the police, and the government tried to confiscate it, but it was eventually cut up and sold. The event, however, led to around 400 villagers protesting outside Betreed and calling for its eviction, with local people feeling their right to use the forest was being infringed upon.
Tensions have eased since then. Betreed offers the local community a percentage of its profits from ecotourism projects, which could amount to between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. Yet Davis acknowledged the lucrative value of logging remains hard to resist.
“It would take 10 or 15 years for us to give as much as that tree was worth,” he said. “So ecotourism seems to be getting less and less possible. Mainly because the price of forest products is skyrocketing. Five years ago, a piece of rosewood was worth $50, and now it’s worth $2,000 or $3,000. Once they’ve cleared out the valuable trees, maybe then you could do ecotourism with what’s left.”
Meanwhile, the risks involved for those protecting the forest are grave. Sothea, who last month caught two people cutting down trees, said they threatened him verbally before firing a warning shot from an air rifle. Even park director Meas Nhim’s rangers have faced threats. “Our rangers get attacked,” Meas Nhim said. “The violators use a local-made gun, and so our rangers go in as groups of at least four, five or six and bring their own guns too.” Just over a year ago, a forest ranger, military police officer and staff member of the Wildlife Conservation Society were shot dead while trying to defend Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, about 60 kilometers southeast of Beng Per.
In Bang Khanphal, a remote village in Beng Per, the indigenous community has taken matters into its own hands by creating a vigilante group that camps out in its Community Protected Area each night to deter timber looters. Sieng Ra, a member of the Bang Khanphal security system, said all villagers are involved and take shifts to protect the land.
“Over the last five months, there has been no illegal logging because our villagers stay there and keep watching,” Sieng Ra said. “Before we took action, there were around two or three cases per day of people going to the forest to cut down trees. Hundreds were cut down.
“We’ve been trying to protect the forest for 10 years,” he said. “Normally, illegal logging only takes place at night. As long as our community has enough people, it is OK. If we have just a few people, the illegal loggers will fight us, and it is dangerous. We do it because we are afraid the next generation won’t see trees anymore, and local people won’t be able to build houses.”
‘A rat race for a share of the loot’
Jago Wadley, senior forests campaigner at the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said the issue continues to be exacerbated via trade with neighboring Vietnam.
“Massive trade of illegal timber across the border from Cambodia into Vietnam has been one of the principle drivers for illegal logging in Cambodia in recent years,” Wadley said. “The trade spiked from 2014, and peaked in 2016/17, but remains a significant issue.
Although some Southeast Asian nations have turned a corner – Laos saw a 90% drop in the export of logs to Vietnam in 2016 – the same cannot be said for Cambodia. As long as the voracious demand for luxury timber persists and the border with Vietnam remains porous, it’s hard to see an end in sight to the razing of Cambodia’s forests.
The tale of Beng Per isn’t just that of one sanctuary, but rather the narrative of an entire nation. Last year, two areas of protected forest, including Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary, were dissolved by royal decree after being almost entirely stripped of forest. Illegal logging is also taking a heavy toll on nearby Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. A 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.
Marcus Hardtke, an expert who has worked on forest issues in Cambodia since 1996 with a number of non-governmental organizations and who has spent the last five years with the international watchdog organization Global Witness, is unflinchingly frank in his description of the wider issue.
“The Ministry of Environment has been rapidly adding new protected areas to the map since 2016,” he said. “By now, basically all the remaining natural forests of the country are under some form of official protection. Unfortunately, illegal logging continues at all levels, from village level to industrial-size operations by the entrenched timber mafia.”
Hardtke said the corruption fueling the destruction of Cambodia’s forests is widespread and deeply entrenched in many different sectors.
“Law-enforcement efforts are rather exercises in extortion,” he said. “All levels of government agencies are involved in this: forestry officials and park rangers, police and military units, local and provincial authorities and even groups of local journalists.
“It’s not about forest protection, it’s a rat race for a share of the loot.”
*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity.
This story appeared initially on Mongabay. The original report can be accessed here