Deforestation in Cambodia

Deforestation in Cambodia has increased in recent years. Cambodia is one of the world's most forest endowed countries, that was not historically widely deforested. However, massive deforestation for economic development threatens its forests and ecosystems. As of 2015, the country has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.[1]

Illegal deforestation near Saen Monourom, Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia

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 land tenure, lack of agriculture technology, and limited employment opportunities.[2]

The Cambodian government has played a large role in shaping the use of the country's forests. An unusually large area of Cambodia has been designated as protected areas and biodiversity corridors, over 38% (more than 7 million hectares) of the total land mass,[3] but many protections have subsequently been overruled by concessions sold to both national and foreign companies for agroindustrial plantations and mining developments, even in national parks.[4]

The Cambodian government has been broadly criticized domestically and internationally for these contradicting policies, and a general lack of enforcement of environmental laws. They have faced pressures to practice a more sustainable forestry overall. The fate of Cambodia's forests will largely affect local communities that rely on the forests for their livelihood. Around 80% of its population lives in rural areas.[4]

Cambodia's primary forest cover fell dramatically from over 70% in 1970 at the end of the Vietnam War to just 3.1% in 2007, when less than 3,220 square kilometers of primary forest remained.[5] Deforestation is proceeding at an alarming rate: nearly 75% of forest loss has occurred since the end of 1990s. In total, Cambodia lost 25,000 square kilometers of forest between 1990 and 2005, 3,340 square kilometer of which was primary forest.[5] As 2016, 87,424 square kilometers of forest remained including 28, 612 square kilometers of evergreen forest,[6] with the result that the future sustainability of Cambodia's forest reserves is under severe threat.[7]

Extent of deforestation

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.

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 of the loss occurred after 2000. Since 2001, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has suspended all the forest concession activities and prepared a sustainable forest management plan according to international standards.[8]

In an effort to conserve forest cover, a limited amount of forest is allowed to be cut annually though a bidding process in order to supply the domestic timber demand. A harvest limit of 0.8m3 per hectare has been established with a 13-year cutting cycle, according to the National Forest Programme 2010-2029.[8]

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 forest land.[2] However, as 2016, the forest cover remains 48.14%, equivalent to 87, 424 square kilometers.

Forest distribution varies nationwide. As of 2016, the hilly northwest and southest region have the highest forest coverage rate. Among 25 provinces, 7 provinces have forest cover of more than 60%.[6] If the Cambodian government does not move toward a more sustainable forest management, the value of Cambodia's forests is likely to decline.[9]

Province Forest Type Total Non Forest (ha) Grand Total (ha)
Evergreen Forest Semi-Evergreen Forest Deciduous Forest Other Forest Total Forest (ha)
Banteay Meanchey 1,460 2,860 9,437 8,051 21,808 593,011 614,819
Battambang 59,483 16,382 20,075 171,573 267,513 919,697 1,187,210
Kampong Cham 658 59 641 50,923 52,281 402,893 455,174
Kampong Chhang 17,319 5,414 71,913 47,018 141,664 387,797 529,461
Kampong Speu 64,587 21,677 130,065 19,178 235,507 460,964 696,471
Kampong Thom 194,251 14,850 45,948 224,640 479,689 765,074 1,244,763
Kampot 125,764 3,924 27,758 4,970 162,416 309,399 471,815
Kandal 0 0 99 14,644 14,743 341,630 356,373
Kep 1,806 9 0 1,201 3,016 12,157 15,173
Koh Kong 839,938 11,632 24,404 95,247 971,221 240,374 1,211,595
Kratie 100,239 95,364 403,055 136,410 735,068 462,237 1,197,305
Mondul Kiri 131,439 212,341 803,665 67,975 1,215,420 151,472 1,366,892
Oddar Meanchey 50,051 18,639 104,912 16,361 189,963 473,202 663,165
Pailin 29,877 1,454 503 510 32,344 75,367 107,711
Phnom Penh 0 0 0 0 0 37,374 37,374
Preah Sihanouk 48,901 2,579 2 29,432 80,914 68,291 149,205
Preah Vihear 211,737 141,836 698,880 42,019 1,094,472 308,615 1,403,087
Prey Veng 19 0 92 1,613 1,724 474,436 476,160
Pursat 440,528 73,157 138,309 75,625 727,619 430,972 1,158,591
Ratanak Kiri 234,776 173,824 334,555 150,763 893,918 284,542 1,178,460
Siemreap 44,662 23,018 117,679 134,358 319,717 734,732 1,054,449
Stung Treng 261,240 252,779 395,117 62,181 971,317 230,344 1,201,661
Svay Rieng 28 0 0 5,189 5,217 281,608 286,825
Takeo 1,916 0 9,115 2,584 13,615 335,428 349,043
Thbang Khmom 554 149 125 108,844 109,672 383,450 493,122
Tonle Sap (Not province) 0 0 0 1,563 1,563 253,207 254770
Total Area (ha) 2,861,233 1,071,947 3,336,349 1,472,872 8,742,401 9,418,273 18,160,674
Percent (%) 15.76 5.90 18.37 8.11 48.14 51.86 100.00


Government resource management for development

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) sees great potential in Cambodia's forests to further the country's development.[10] 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.”[11] Starting in 1992, the 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.[12] 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.[12]

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.[10]

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.[10] Cambodia has the highest number of land mines per capital.[10] 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.[12] 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.[10] In addition, estimates of forestry output are unknown but are assumed to be over the legal mount due to illegal cutting.[12]

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.[13]

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.[13]

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."[14]

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.[15]

Commercial logging

This map shows the overlapping areas between protected areas and economic land concessions.

The last decade has seen central forest management placing a priority on commercial timber interests which often coincide with large scale deforestation. By 1999, over 4.7 million hectares were granted to 25 private companies for commercial logging.[16] The wood production in 1997 is this country was 3.4 million cubic meters which 5 times over the sustainable forest yield.[16] 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.[9]

Foreign enterprises began to take part in commercial logging after the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991.[10] The period of 1994–96 saw an increase of forest concessions to private companies which reflected the RGC's move toward liberalizing its economy.[12] 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.[11]

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 details of the contract have limited public transparency, but 84 concession agreements are accessible through the open data portal of Open Development Cambodia.[17] The contract often includes sustainable forestry guidelines but they are rarely enforced.[10]

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.[10]

Cambodia has implemented economic land concessions (ELCs) for agro-industrial development and forest land concessions, 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 other hand, critics of the policy argue that ELCs will disposes local communities of their land rights, threaten their livelihood, and create social problems.[2] The granted concessions often overlap with occupied community lands. In 2014, around one third of the land conflict occurred in Cambodia was caused by economic land concessions (97 out of 308 land conflict cases).[18]

As of 2015, economic land concessions (15,300 square kilometers in 18 provinces) were granted to 267 companies, including 3,800 square kilometers of protected area, according to the NGO Forum on Cambodia.[19] Another source from LICADO, shows that the total size of ELC was 18,300 square kilometers granted to 228 companies, of which 96 are locally owned 128 are foreign owned, and the remaining 4 are unknown.[20]

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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[9]

Local use

The Cambodian population has increased gradually with the annual growth rate over 1.5% since 2005.[21] As of 2019, the total population increased to 15.29 million people, according to provisional results from Cambodia’s 2019 census.[22] The 2019 census shows that the provinces with high forest cover rate have a high annual growth rate: Preah Vihear province (3.5%), followed by Mondul Kiri (3.4%), Stung Treng (3.2%), Otdar Meanchey (3.1%) and Ratanak Kiri (2.8%). 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.[9] 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.[10] Garment factories in Cambodia have contributed to deforestation by using firewood to generate electricity.[23]

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 Environmental rural development and poverty reduction strategies.[9]



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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[10]


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.[24]

This has negative impacts on many Cambodians. Around 90% of Cambodia's population is concentrated 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 for fishermen.[24]


Numerous species of globally endangered wildlife inhabitant Cambodia’s forests. Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary serves as the habitat for over 60 species listed as Globally Threatened, Near-threatened or Data Deficient by IUCN criteria.[25] Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary is home to 50 threatened species and 21 species prioritized for genetic conservation.[26] The decline [MD1] of wildlife species in Cambodia is driven by the depletion of habitat.[27] Deforestation from commercial and illegal logging and land use conversion are the leading causes of the decline or depletion of habitat.

Indigenous people

Approximately 200,000 indigenous people always are identified in 24 groups scattered over 15 southwestern and northeastern provinces of Cambodia.[28] They live in remote and isolated areas surrounded by forest[2]. Their livelihoods and culture depend on forests. Their main income, food, clothing, and medicine are based on the collection of non-timber forest products.[28]

Preventive measures

This map shows the 2019 protected areas, community forestry and community protected area.

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.[10]

Community forests, established in 1994[29] 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. Some challenges that have arisen are conflicting interests with how to manage forests within communities, the government's reluctance to transfer resource management power to communities, powerful special 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.[12] Despite its shortcomings, this program has grown very popular among those who live in rural areas. As of 2016, 610 communities participate in community forestry, covering 5,066 square kilometers in 21 provinces.[29] Community forests only cover 2.8 percent[29] of Cambodia's land area which is extremely small compared to the concessions given to commercial forestry.[9]

Community forestry units in Cambodia:[29]

ProvinceNo. districtsNo. communesNo. community forestry unitsArea (ha)
Kep 3 2 2 1,009
Koh Kong 13 4 8 17,514.41
Kratie 46 6 19 72,993
Tbong Khmum 11 2 3 3,521
Kampong Chnnang 34 5 16 11,019.7
Kampong Thom 87 7 29 84,225.52
Kampong Speu 39 6 24 17,744
Kampot 33 7 22 13,543
Takeo 13 2 14 10,791
Banteay Meanchey 12 4 9 4,970
Pailin 4 2 4 858
Battambang 32 7 14 11,095.25
Pursat 91 6 24 17,773
Preah Vihear 47 6 19 72,040
Mondulkiri 8 3 4 10,268
Ratanakiri 37 7 19 22,754
Siemreap 57 12 30 31,263
Stung Treng 13 3 16 35,557.28
Svay Rieng 8 6 9 1,219.7
Oddar Meanchey 14 4 9 65,168
Preah Sihanouk 2 1 2 1,274

Community Protected Areas

The first protected area was established in 1998 under the reign of King Sihanouk. However, the law on protected areas was adopted in 2008 to govern biodiversity and ensure the sustainability of natural resource within the protected areas.[30] This law recognized the rights of indigenous communities and the general public to participate in decision making on managing and conserving biodiversity in a sustainable approach. Community protected areas (CPA) is a mechanism to engage the local community including indigenous people, who are the primary natural resource users, in planning, monitoring and decision making on protected area management. As of 2018, the number of community protected areas has increased to 153 communities within 51 protected areas.[3]

The communities are the ecological safeguards and they cooperate with the Ministry of Environment to patrol the forest and protect against environmental crimes such as illegal logging and poaching. The communities receive income from collecting non-timber products and funding support from government and development partners. Since 2017, more than 32 million USD are provided by international development partners to support nature conservation and protection of protected areas.[31]

Although the law on protected areas gave a legal foundation to the Ministry of Environment (MOE) to govern protected areas, some areas such as conservation area and protected forest are under the governance of the Forestry Administration, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). The economic land concession, which is a state land lease to the private sector for agroindustry development, is governed by MOE and MAFF. In April 2016, the RGC decided to transfer 18 conservation forests over 2.6 million hectares from MAFF to MOE while 73 ELC were transferred to the authority of MAFF.[32] In 2017, the RGC has created a 1.4 million-hectare biodiversity conservation corridor which is the bridge connecting protected areas across the whole country.[33]

An environmental code has been drafted since 2015 with public consultation from community, NGO and development partners.[34] This code strengthens the effectiveness of environmental protection, conservation management, and restored natural resources and biodiversity. This law guarantees open access to environmental information and includes guidelines for sustainable resource management and environmental impact assessment for development projects, according to the eleventh draft of the environmental code.[35] The law is in draft 11th as of April 2018.[36]

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) Program

RGC adopted the National REDD+ Strategy (NRS) 2017 – 2021. This policy established an inter-ministry platform for combating climate change effects through the improvement of natural resources and forest area.[37] REDD+ is a program that allows private companies to purchase and protect carbon stocks from developing countries as a part of cooperate social responsibility (CSR).[38] In 2016, the Walt Disney Corporation purchased carbon stock worth 2.6 million USD from Cambodia.[39] Since 2016, Cambodia has received over 11 million USD from carbon credits.[40]


According to the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Cambodian government started afforestation projects in 1985. The reforesting plan was 500-800 hectares per year, towards a goal of 100,000 hectares (1000 km2. 7,500 hectares (7.5 km2) had been forested by 1997; limited funds prohibited more ambitious coverage.

The annual Arbor Day holiday on 9 July, early in the rainy season, is when Cambodians are encouraged to plant trees. Educational programmes on seeds and soil are offered in schools and temples, and afforestation measures are advertised through TV and radio.[10]

See also

  • Climate change in Cambodia


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