Reports are coming out of Cambodia this month that there has been a large spike in deforestation, correlating with the global outbreak of COVID-19.
On April 21, Conservation International reported, “In Cambodia, our field office reports an increase in deforestation caused by illegal logging, as well as an increase in the sale of bushmeat. The field office also anticipates that sharply increased urban-rural migration due to job losses could drive further deforestation via agricultural expansion and logging.”
Followers of my work will know that I recently spent three weeks in Cambodia, documenting the challenges facing the country’s forests. During my time in the country, I shadowed conservationists, military police and vigilante citizens who are trying to protect the last remnants of the country’s forests.
A link between deforestation and COVID-19 is not an obvious one at first, but when the local social, economic and political factors are taken into account, the link becomes clear.
The main drivers behind deforestation in Cambodia are conversion of forest lands for agricultural use and targeted logging of valuable species, such as Rosewood, for the Asian furniture markets.
Rubber plantations are ubiquitous and are spread throughout the country. Agricultural exports are mainly to countries such as China, Singapore and Malaysia. Large swathes of Cambodia’s natural forests have been cleared to make way for plantations that generate large revenues for the government.
As COVID-19 has affected the region, the Cambodian economy has been impacted drastically. “Cambodia, despite reporting fewer coronavirus cases than most of its neighbors, could be among the region’s biggest Covid-19 losers due to economic and financial contagion effects. The country’s most crucial business sectors, including tourism and garment manufacturing, have ground to a virtual halt since the pandemic first emerged in China in January and thereafter spread worldwide. Cambodia’s tourism industry, which usually contributes around one-third of gross domestic product (GDP), is now dead”, reported the Asia Times on May 12.
As many different sectors of the economy are being impacted, unemployment inevitably increases pushing more people into economic hardship. In these times, free and exploitable resources become of great interest to those seeking to survive these difficult times. Unfortunately the most accessible and easily exploitable resource in Cambodia are the country’s forests.
“Cambodia lost nearly 2.2 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2018, and the annual rate of loss increased by almost 300 percent during the same period”, according to Global Forest Watch. “Since 2001, Cambodia has lost about 24 percent of its tree cover, a much higher percentage than larger, forested countries including Brazil and Indonesia.”
The last remaining pockets of forests in Cambodia were already under great strain and it is uncertain how long this latest spike in deforestation will continue, adding even more pressure the these fragile and threatened ecosystems.
The Cambodian government’s role has been questioned in the leasing and selling of forests to local and international companies who exploit the forests. This lucrative trade has inevitably led to accusations of corruption. “Cambodia’s forests are being felled at a shocking rate, as poachers and corrupt officials profit from the black market trade in rare wood species, which is being exported to Vietnam”, reported DW in 2018.
There are local groups in Cambodia who are involved in trying to protect the forests, but they, like the ecosystems they are trying to protect, are increasingly coming under pressure.
Recently, many local environmental activists have been harassed and banned from entering the forests by the government. Just last month the Cambodian Ministry of the Environment threatened action against any groups using satellite data to monitor deforestation, further highlighting the government’s suspected role in trying to cover up what is happening in the country’s forests.
On May 2nd, in a Japan Times‘ article, ‘As loggers exploit virus, Cambodian forest protectors defy state ban’, they report, “A Cambodian conservation group has warned that logging in the protected Prey Lang forest has ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic, vowing it would continue to monitor the destruction despite government threats of legal action to stop that work. Members of the Prey Lang Community Network said officials were allowing timber to be laundered through agri-business projects bordering the forest, one of Southeast Asia’s last lowland evergreen woodlands.”
For more updates on the development of this story, please follow me on FACEBOOK and INSTAGRAM where I am releasing images and videos every day from my recent travels documenting the destruction of Cambodia’s forests and the efforts of conservationists to protect them.
You can also pre-order my new limited edition magazine on this story HERE.
This reporting was made possible with the support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.