Google Earth Satellite Timelapses Reveal True Scale of Deforestation in Cambodia

Followers of my work this year will know that I have spent a lot of time sharing work from my recent project, Cambodia Burning. This work, supported by the Pulitzer Center, was carried out in February 2020 and highlighted the impacts of rampant deforestation and forest fires on the people and landscapes of the country. The project was featured in both Yale Environment 360 and with National Geographic, with a short film also released with the same title.

In recent weeks, I have turned my attention to looking at the historical trends of deforestation in Cambodia using the powerful Google Earth Engine. According to Google, it “combines a multi-petabyte catalog of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets with planetary-scale analysis capabilities and makes it available for scientists, researchers, and developers to detect changes, map trends, and quantify differences on the Earth’s surface.”

Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary – Wide View of Eastern Area

One of the features I have been particularly interested in is the time-lapse feature which allows users to look at historical land use change over a period of almost 35 years. As you can imagine, for those interested in trends associated with deforestation, this has the potential to clearly identify changes in land use that could hint at signs of forest loss.

I used the Google Earth Engine time-lapse feature to retrace my recent travels in Cambodia, which were mainly in and around the Beng Per (Boeng Peae) Wildlife Sanctuary and the Prey Lang Forest, also a designated ‘protected’ Wildlife Sanctuary.

Throughout this post I have embedded maps from Google Earth Engine, showing some of the incredible changes that have taken place in some of these areas I visited. I have highlighted just these areas in this post but you can explore the rest of Cambodia yourself by using the Earth Engine time-lapse feature which is very user-friendly.

Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary – Wide View of Western Area

As you can see, the changes to Cambodia’s forests are staggering and shocking.

Global Forest Watch reports, “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. Data from Global Forest Watch’s Dashboards shows that, since 2001, Cambodia has lost about 24 percent of its tree cover, a much higher percentage than larger, forested countries including Brazil and Indonesia.”

Why is this happening? According to Global Witness, it stems from the “highest levels of government…illegal logging network that relies on collusion with state officials and enforcement agencies to fell rare trees”. Cambodia’s forests are being leased by the government to domestic and international companies who use and exploit the forest resources for their own financial gain with little consideration for long-term environmental impacts. Land is often stripped of high value trees that end up feeding the Chinese furniture market, or forests are cleared to make way for agricultural plantations producing products such as rubber, bananas, rice and cashew nuts that are exported across Asia and the rest of the world.

Prey Lang Forest & Mekong River – Wide View

In many of the maps here, you can see that there was a rapid increase in forest clearance around 2010, accelerating through to 2018. Much of the land at this time turns from dark green forest into browner grids. This is the conversion of forest into plantations. The same areas then turn green again as the planted crops sprout vegetation. This gives the illusion of forest cover but in reality they are mono-culture plantations that are very poor substitutes for original forest and lack any significant biodiversity.

This publicly accessible information through Google Earth Engine is important as recently the Cambodia authorities have cracked down on local activists who try to use satellite data to monitor changes to Cambodia’s forests, threatening them with arrest and legal action if they do so. This continues a long history of harassment and intimidation by the government towards local activists who are struggling to protect the last remaining pockets of forest in Cambodia.

I hope by bringing these time lapses to people’s attention, they can see the true reality of forest loss in Cambodia and wider South East Asia.

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