With proper, sustainable management, Cambodia’s forests could represent a valuable source of income for the country, not just in terms of providing timber, but also as a focus for eco tourism. Regrettably, the last few decades have seen forest cover in Cambodia decline dramatically, with the most recent survey by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggesting it has decreased by nearly a third over a five-year period. Initially the forests were logged, mainly illegally for timber, but more recently they have been cleared in vast swathes to make way for plantations, such as rubber in Kompong Cham province, and more worryingly, for the illegal production of the drug MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, in the Cardamom Mountains.

In 2001, the Cambodian government (forced by the World Bank) began to take action to reduce some of the most glaring environmental abuses. However, the government soon fell out with Global Witness (w, the environmental watchdog appointed by the Bank to monitor Cambodia’s forests, when its findings were not to its liking. Their most recent spat is a result of a damning report issued in June 2007 by Global Witness in which it named a number of high-ranking government officials as using the country’s resources for personal gain; the government responded by calling for heads to roll at Global Witness. In the meantime, more than a decade after a cessation in logging was announced, little has really happened and the country’s natural resources continue to diminish at an alarming rate.

Cambodia’s forests are home to a vast, diverse wildlife population, including globally threatened species like the tiger. Ironically, the improvements in infrastructure that followed the establishment of the country’s national parks have sometimes made it easier for poachers to capture wild animals, which are either sold in local markets for the pot or used to produce medicines and charms. Until a government clampdown in 2001 it was possible to buy game taken from the park, particularly venison, along National Route 4 near Kirirom, while restaurants specializing in rare meats such as pangolin were easy to find in Phnom Penh. Nowadays, most of this appears to have stopped and you’ll see anti-hunting posters along National Route 4 instead, though the message certainly isn’t having much impact on the poachers, who continue to see the profits from hunting as too enticing to relinquish.

So, while Cambodia has made some of the right gestures, banning logging and outlawing trafficking in wildlife under the international CITES convention, it lacks the will to implement sound conservation policies. For the foreseeable future, wildlife organizations working in Cambodia will continue to face a severe uphill struggle, producing useful surveys while generally being unable to affect government policy.

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