Cambodia’s opposition leader called Wednesday for a halt to land concessions granted by the government to foreign companies in the country’s vast Prey Lang Forest, calling for greater protection of one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining lowland evergreen woodlands.
Cambodia National Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy made the call while on a visit with 20 lawmakers-elect from the party to a rubber plantation run by Vietnamese military-linked CRCK company as part of a land concession in the forest in Kampong Thom province.
Opposition politicians have raised several complaints against the government about the company since it began clearing forest to make way for the rubber trees after it was granted a 23 square mile (60 square kilometer) land concession in the province’s Sandan district three years ago.
Villagers who have long relied on the forest have lost their livelihoods because of deforestation brought by trees felled for land concessions such as those given to CRCK, Sam Rainsy said.
“We shouldn’t welcome these foreign companies … that have encroached on our forest,” he told RFA's Khmer Service.
Scale of destruction
He said he was “speechless” at the scale of destruction of the forest, which stretches across about 1,390 square miles (3,600 square kilometers).
“Before, this area used to have forest so thick we couldn’t even see the sky, but now it has vanished and we can see only see empty fields.”
“I feel sorrow for our country, the forest, and all the people,” he said.
Local villagers near the plantation had been unable to find decent-paying jobs that would make up for the loss of their livelihoods, he said.
Forest under threat
Tens of thousands of ethnic minority people live in and around the Prey Lang Forest, which also plays a key role in Cambodia’s water management system.
Local activists say it is under a major environmental threat from agro-industrial and mining land concessions that authorize private developers to clear trees on wide swathes of the forest, as well as from illegal logging in unauthorized areas.
Community activists have conducted patrols to check illegal logging and poaching and have campaigned to stop any land concessions from being granted in the forest, which they say should have official protected status.
According to rights group Adhoc, the government has granted at least 33 companies about 386 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) worth of land concessions in Prey Lang, the Phnom Penh Post reported this year.
CRCK's land concession in the forest was granted in May 2010 with a 70-year contract, according to the paper.
Reported by Sobratsavyouth Hang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.