Deforestation in Cambodia

The effects of deforestation and subsequent flooding can be seen from space on ordinary satellite images. This image is from the Terra satellite in 2002.

Cambodia is one of the world’s most forest endowed country that has not yet been drastically deforested. However, massive deforestation for economic development threatens Cambodia’s forests. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, third to only Nigeria and Vietnam, according to a 2005 report conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).[1] The government has played a large role in shaping the use of Cambodia’s forests. They have faced domestic and international pressures to practice sustainable forestry. The fate of Cambodia’s forests will largely affect local communities that rely on the forests for their livelihood. The government has been largely criticized for their land concessions to foreign companies and the lack of corresponding environmental regulation and enforcement.

Deforestation has directly resulted from poorly managed commercial logging, fuel wood collection, agricultural invasion, and infrastructure and urban development. Indirect pressures include rapid population growth, inequalities in in land tenure, lack of agriculture technology, and limited employment opportunities.[2]

Cambodia's primary rainforest cover fell dramatically from over 70% in 1970 at the end of the Vietnam War to just 3.1% in 2007.[3] Deforestation is accelerating at an alarming rate, with overall rate of total forest loss at nearly 75% since the end of the 1990s. In total, Cambodia lost 25,000 square kilometres of forest between 1990 and 2005, 3,340 square kilometres of which was primary forest. As of 2007, less than 3,220 square kilometres of primary forest remain, with the result that the future sustainability of Cambodia's forest reserves is under severe threat.[4]

Extent of Deforestation

Open Development Cambodia, an NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, used US satellite data to show a significant loss of forest cover from 72.1% in 1973 to 46.3% in 2014. Most forest cover loss occurred after 2000. In an effort to conserve forest cover, a harvest limit of 10m3 per hectare has been established. This number was chosen in consideration of a forest growth of 0.3m3/ha/yr and a 35 year cutting cycle. The RGC has set a Cambodia Millennium Development Goal to maintain national cover of 60% of total land area by 2015. This would require 532,615 hectares of non-forest land to be converted to tree plantation.[2]

Forest distribution varies nationwide. Although all 21 provinces had forests before the war, its preservation was very uneven until 1993. Regions with the highest forest coverage are in hilly districts such as Preach Vihear with 93%, Koh Kong with 92%, and Ratanakiri with 91%. Areas with the lowest forest coverage are in the Mekong delta region such as Prey Veng with 2%, Svay Ring with 2%, and the capital Phnom Penh with 5%.[5]

If the Cambodian government does not move toward more sustainable forest management, then the value of Cambodia’s forests is likely to decline.[6]


Government resource management for development

The Cambodian government, the Royal Government of Cambodia, sees great potential in Cambodia’s forests to further Cambodia’s development.[5] The government can use timber exports to acquire foreign currencies and create necessary revenue to support reconstruction and development. The World Bank considered the forest to be “one of the few important resources for development in Cambodia.”[7] Starting in 1992, The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) used revenue generated from the sale of forest products to finance various development projects.[2] Forest revenues as a percent of total government revenues decreased from 14 percent in 1994 to 5 percent in 1996.[8] This revenue decrease and visible mismanagement of the forest sector spurred the IMF, World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the United Nations Development Program in 1994 and 1995 to review Cambodia’s forest policies. Some forest policies have been reformed however the causes of deforestation cannot be fixed solely through policy.[8]

Despite potential gains from utilizing forest resources, the government has faced pressures from domestic and international groups that are concerned about deforestation. Domestically, local communities rely on forests for timber and non-timber resources, as well as the positive contributions of the forest to rice farming and fisheries. Internationally, there are many nongovernment organizations and environmental organizations that have expressed concern over deforestation in Cambodia. In the 1990s, the Cambodian government passed and lifted many government bans on timber exports as a result from these pressures.[5]

There are some barriers to forest development and sustainable forest management. In 1999, 35% to 40% of the forests were considered dangerous due to land mines, ongoing conflicts, and rogue armed forces.[5] Cambodia has the highest number of land mines per capital.[5] Land mines have prevented the utilization of forests. Another barrier is an absence of reliable data on existing forests relating to their extent, composition, and problems of access.[8] Cambodia has very little data on their environment due to their prolonged civil war. UN organizations and international NGOs support most of the environmental activities such as collecting data.[5] In addition, estimates of forestry output are unknown but are assumed to be over the legal mount due to illegal cutting.[8]

Global Witness, a British NGO, criticizes RGC’s management of forests. In a briefing document published in 1996, Global Witness describes how the RGC secretly creates forest policies that benefit them, their allies in the Thai government, and foreign businesses. Global Witness asserts that RGC’s management of Cambodia’s forest goes against the Cambodian Constitution. One example the Global Witness draws on to illustrate the collusion occurring within the RGC is the 1995 ban of cutting fresh timber and timber exports. Publicly the RGC implemented this two year ban in order to fully assess the state of forests around the country with an ultimate goal to create a sustainable development plan for future forest use. However during this time, the RGC privately participated in forest concessions with foreign companies. One point of contention is that these forest concessions required the approval of only three government officials: the two Prime Ministers and the Minister of Agriculture. Global Witness argues that the fate of Cambodia’s forests and therefore livelihoods of many Cambodians rested in a few hands of those with opposing interests.[9] Global Witness also says a vast illegal logging operation is driving the country's rarest tree species to the brink of extinction with government and military officials acting with impunity to keep the operation functioning. Another Global Witness report in 2015 said, "government and industry insiders, including people who work for Okhna Try Pheap, indicated that entrenched corruption had ensured loggers in his network were given safe passage and immunity from timber confiscations and penalties."[10] This report also named Cambodian timber magnate Try Pheap at the center of a large illegal logging enterprise driving Cambodia's rarest tree species to the brink of extinction. The report concludes that the operation of the illegal logging is being done with the collusion of government and military officials with virtually all of the illegally cut and transported wood going to China.[11]

Commercial logging

The last decade has seen central forest management placing a priority on commercial timber interests which often coincide with large scale deforestation. Environmental and social aspects of sustainable forest management were largely ignored. This has led to over-logging, conflicts with local communities over rights, and limited contribution to national development and poverty alleviation.[6]

Foreign enterprises began to take part in commercial logging after the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991.[5] The period of 1994-96 saw an increase of forest concessions to private companies which reflected the RGC’s move toward liberalizing its economy.[8] In 1996, the World Band,United Nations Development Program, and Food and Agriculture Organization advocated for market-oriented policy reform regarding the management of Cambodia’s forests in order to increase forest revenue and avoid overexploitation.[7]

There are two kinds of agreements concerning commercial logging, investment agreement and forest timber license. Investment Agreements are concessions are given to those who have invested in facilities for logging and wood processing. Forest Timber Licenses are contracts signed between an enterprise and senior government officials. The details of the contract are not open to the public. The contract often includes sustainable forestry guidelines but they are rarely enforced.[5]

The international price for forests are $74/cubic meter compared to $14/cubic meter in Cambodia. The undervaluing of Cambodian forests has contributed to foreign acquisition and loss of profit for Cambodia.[5]

Cambodia has implemented Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), forest land concessions for agro-industrial development, in effort to liberalize their economy. Supporters of the policy argue that ELCs to encourage investment from abroad, new technology for agriculture, linking of trade markets, and create new jobs. On the there hand, critics of the policy argue that ELCs will disposes local communities of their land rights, threaten their livelihood, and create social problems.[2] In addition, many businesses granted concessions have breached their concession contracts and investment agreements through illegal logging.[8] Since 2014, the RGC has granted agro-industrial concessions to 124 companies, 39 of which are locally owned and the remaining 85 companies are foreign owned.[2]

The biggest criticism of land concessions for economic purposes is the lack of transparency. Often, distribution of the land concessions and the use of the land is unknown outside of the government and those granted land concessions. Often land concessions have been cleared but not cultivated. This raises questions to whether the land concessions were for productive development or land grabbing.[6]

Illegal logging

Illegal logging poses a large threat to Cambodia's forests. It allows for undocumented and unauthorized deforestation in which allows for the exploitation of Cambodia's forests. There are many cases in which the military carries out illegal logging without knowledge from the government. It is difficult for central government officials to visit areas still controlled by former Pol Pot forces.[5] Illegal commercial timber interests take advantage of weak law enforcement to benefit from illegal cutting. The majority of illegal deforestation is done by the military and powerful sub-contractors.[6]

Local use

Cambodians living near or in forests depend on forests resources for a variety of products and services. Forest-dependent people almost exclusively extract non-timber forest products, rather than timber extraction. Non-timber forest products are used for both subsistence and commercial purposes. Non-Timber forest products include food, medicine, agricultural inputs, and fuel.[6] Forest dwelling people and indigenous entrepreneurs have relied on the forest as a vital source of income for nearly two thousand years.[2]

Timber resources are used for building materials, firewood, and charcoal production. The use of fossil fuels is rare in Cambodia, fuelwood represents 90% of its energy supply. Fuelwood production has been the main cause of deforestation in locations such as the inundated forest of Tonle Sap.[5]

A study conducted by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute found that poor households in the survey gained 42 percent of their livelihood value from forests, equal to $200/household annually. Medium households obtained an average of 30 percent of their livelihood value from forests, equal to $345/household annually. The forests contribute greatly to the livelihoods of rural households living near forests. Deforestation negatively affects these communities by threatening their livelihoods. The poor, who have restricted access to various resources and means of income are more dependent on forest resources. Forest management should be integrated with Environmentalrural development and poverty reduction strategies.[6]



Cambodia’s forests are important on a national and global scale. Forests provide positive impacts on their surroundings such as watershed protection, carbon storage, recreation, and biodiversity conservation.[6] In addition, they include scarce primeval tropical rainforests with rich biodiversity and absorb greenhouse gases. In 1999, Cambodia’s total forest area was 11 million hectare, which stored 150 tons of carbon each, resulting in Cambodia’s forest storing 1.6 billion tons of carbon per year. With every 100,000 hectare of deforestation, 15 million tons of carbon will remain in the atmosphere.[5]

Rice crops

The forests are especially important for water currents that are used to irrigate rice crops. Decrease in forest cover contributes to erosion, flooding, and siltation of streams which compromises water currents which directly support the livelihoods of the Cambodian people.[5]


Deforestation negatively affects the productivity of Cambodia’s freshwater bodies which provides food in the form of fish for many Cambodians. The productivity of Cambodia’s freshwater bodies, such as the Mekong River, the Great Lake and Tonle Sap River, rely on the inundation of forests. Inundated forests allow for phytoplankton and zooplankton development, shelter for juvenile and adult fish species, and serve as reproduction zones. However, high productivity, biodiversity, and rich vegetation have declined in the last several decades due to deforestation and other environmental degradation and overexploitation. This has negative impacts on many Cambodians. Around 90% of Cambodia’s population is concentration on the riparian provinces of the Mekong River, the Great Lake, and the Tonle Sap River. Cambodians, especially poor rural rice farmers, rely on the freshwater bodies for subsistence fishing. Freshwater fish is the basic and most prevalent food of Cambodia after rice, it makes up 70% of animal protein in Cambodian diets. Deforestation has decreased fishing capabilities by reducing the area available for productive ecological activities such as breeding in addition to restricting access to fishermen.[12]

Preventative measures

Community forestry

The concept of community forestry started in India in the 1970s. It acknowledges that local communities in forest regions have knowledge and skills to use forests in a sustainable manner. Their knowledge is rooted in the ecological, cultural, and social characteristics of the community. In community forests, local residents are given certain rights and become the main actors of forest management. The goal of community forests is not to make profits or directly support the current residents by itself, but rather to promote sustainable and effective use of environmental resources and their fair distribution for the present and future generations.[5]

Community forests, established in 2003 in Cambodia, aims to ensure locals rights to forest resources. This program allows for locals to directly participate in the protection, conservation, and development of forest resources. However some challenges that have arose are conflicting interests with how to manage forests within communities, the government’s reluctance to transfer resource management power to communities, special powerful interests overshadowing local interests, the costs of management, and lack of needed assistance.[2] Some researchers argue that the community forestry framework requires industrial forestry reform as well as redefined policies for rural development.[8] Despite its shortcomings, this program has grown very popular among those who live in rural areas. Community forests have increased from 235 in 2005 to 561 in 201.[2]

Community forests only cover 1 percent of Cambodia’s land area which is extremely small compared to the concessions given to commercial forestry.[6]

Community forestry units in Cambodia:

Province No. districts No. communes No. Community Forestry units Area (km²) Supporting organizations
Banteay Meanchey 2 3 5 10.74 CARERE, IFAD
Battambang Province 6 6 17 39.5 ADESS, CARERE
Kampong Chhnang Province 3 913 8.48 Concern
Kampong Speu Province 24 4 4.385 Oxfam-American, Prasac II, LWS, GTZ
Kampong Thom Province 3 3 12 7.001 CFRP
Kampot Province 3 3 12 50.355 GTZ/RDP
Koh Kong Province 2 2 2 32.54 CFRP, AFSC/SLP
Kratie 4 5 12 16.378 SMRP/CFRP
Mondulkiri Province 2 2 2 3.26 SMRP/CFRP
Oddar Meancheay Province 5 6 12 5.581 GCP/CMB/NZE/CFI
Preah Vihear Province 3 5 2 5.885 BPS, Oxfam GB
Pursat Province 5 11 13 33.443 Seila, Ausaid, Concern, ADESS
Ratanakiri 6 11 12 125.51 NTFP, CBNRM, IDRC/PLG/SEILA/UNDP
Siem Reap Province 11 25 35 115.297FAO, IFAD ADESS, EPDO
Svay Rieng 2 4 1 17.04Oxfam GB, CIDSE, CRS
Takeo Province 3 5 1 4.7517 eht MCC/DFW/MAFF


According to the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Cambodian government started afforestation projects in 1985. Reforests 500-800 hectare per year, towards a goal of 100,000 hectare. 7,500 hectare has been forested by 1997. Limited funds prohibit more ambitious projects. In addition, Cambodia annually celebrate Arbor Day on July 9. During this holiday Cambodians are encouraged to plant trees. Educational programs in seeds and soil are offered in schools and temples, and afforestation measures are advertised through TV and radio.[5]


  1. Butler, Rhett A. "Nigeria has worst deforestation rate, FAO revises figures". November 17, 2005.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Sin, Meng Srun. Forestry in Cambodia: The Dilemma of Development and Preservation. Phnom Penh: n.p., 2014. Print.
  3. "Brief on National Forest Inventory - Cambodia" (PDF). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. June 2007. Retrieved 2013-06-23.
  4. "Logging threatens Cambodian tragedy - UN". Thomson Reuters. March 6, 2003.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Ikunaga, Meguri. The Forest Issue in Cambodia : Current Situation and Problems : An Analysis Based on Field Research. Occasional Paper. Tokyo: Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development, International Development Research Institute, 1999. Print.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Hansen, Kasper K., and Neth Top. Natural Forest Benefits and Economic Analysis of Natural Forest Conversion in Cambodia. Working paper no. 33. Phnom Penh: Cambodia Development Resource Institute, 2006. Print.
  7. 1 2 Cambodia Forest Policy Assessment. Rep. no. 15777-KH. Washington DC: World Bank, 1996. Print.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Azimi, Ali. Environments in Transition: Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, Viet Nam. Manila, Philippines: Asian Development Bank, Programs Dept. (West), 2001. Print.
  9. The Unsustainable Exploitation of Cambodia's Forests. Briefing Document. London: Global Witness, 1996. Print.
  10. Gerin, Roseanne (2015-02-06). "China's Appetite for Luxury Rosewood Fuels Illegal Timber Trade in Cambodia". Radio Free Asia. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  11. Peter, Zsombor (2015-02-06). "Timber Trader Try Pheap Linked to Logging Racket". Cambodia Daily. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  12. Tānā, Dūc Sʹāṅ. Mekong River and the Great Lake in Cambodia and the Environmental Trends. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Department of Fisheries, 1995. Print.
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