PHNOM TAMAO, Cambodia—Prime Minister Hun Sen has stepped in to cancel all development projects slated for the Phnom Tamao forest, near the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, following months of public condemnation.
The announcement on the morning of Aug. 7 saw work in what remains of the forest snap to a halt, but not before hundreds of hectares of forest had been felled.
Prior to this month, the forest, located 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Phnom Penh, spanned some 2,300 hectares (5,700 acres) and hosted a range of threatened animals, along with the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center.
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Jointly run by Cambodia’s Forestry Administration and conservation NGOs Wildlife Alliance and Free the Bears, the center offers refuge and rehabilitation for animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, before eventually releasing the animals back into the wild—often directly into the adjoining forests of Phnom Tamao.
But a government-approved land swap saw at least 1,180 hectares (2,916 acres), more than half of the forest’s expanse, transferred from the state to private owners.
Of this, 680 hectares (1,680 acres) was listed as going to TP Moral Group, headed by Khun Sea, a Cambodian tycoon notorious for using live snakes to evict people in Phnom Penh.
Meanwhile, 500 hectares (1,236 acres) was listed as being transferred to unnamed private owners, although the government later disclosed that Leng Navatra, another tycoon who claims to have worked his way up from a laborer in South Korea to become a property developer and music video producer, also received an unidentified parcel of land within the forest.
Both Sea and Navatra have made large donations to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), of which Hun Sen is president, earning them honorific titles of oknha and neak-oknha, respectively. These titles are awarded to CPP loyalists by the government and typically grant their holders a degree of impunity, as well as signifying their relationship with the higher echelons of government.
Keo Omaliss, director of the Forestry Administration, which is responsible for managing Phnom Tamao’s forest beyond the rescue center, did not respond to requests for comment.
Seven days of destruction
Despite pleas from Wildlife Alliance’s conservationists, condemnation from environmental activist group Mother Nature Cambodia, and widespread public backlash on social media, excavators began tearing down trees in Phnom Tamao on Aug. 1. In the seven days that followed, prior to Hun Sen’s announcement, developers managed to destroy some 500 hectares of regenerating deciduous forest, according to Mong Reththy, a CPP senator and also an oknha.
Reththy expressed his frustration at the destruction of forest in his home province of Takeo and has since become the leading figure in the effort to replant trees in Phnom Tamao.
“Mong Reththy’s estimate is correct, but perhaps actually closer to 600 hectares [nearly 1,500 acres],” said Nick Marx, director of wildlife rescue and care programs at Wildlife Alliance.
“Wildlife Alliance is grateful to Mong Reththy for helping to replant the forest,” he added. “I feel that the forest is safe now that the prime minister, Samdech Hun Sen, has stepped in and all at Wildlife Alliance and also the Cambodian people are extremely grateful for his intervention.”
Marx, who has been at the forefront of campaign to save Phnom Tamao, said he didn’t know whether an environmental impact assessment had been conducted prior to the excavators entering the forest, but noted that misinformation, specifically in relation to wildlife habitats, had been an issue.
“Apart from the value of forests for our own survival, I feel that Phnom Tamao is an undervalued resource for conservation in Cambodia,” he said. “It is the only remaining area of forest in Takeo and Kandal provinces and holds a great deal of wildlife, including many sambar deer [Rusa unicolor], which are becoming increasingly scarce in every country they live. Also, Eld’s deer [Rucervus eldii siamensis], which is very endangered, with Cambodia probably being the only country that still holds viable populations.”
Marx suggested that the overwhelming support from the Cambodian people demonstrated the forest’s importance culturally and pointed out that while the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center functions primarily as a rehabilitation facility, it effectively serves as Cambodia’s only national zoo.
“This destruction is not what we wanted, but I feel that if the cooperation between the Forestry Administration and Wildlife Alliance that used to exist can continue, the damage can be repaired, and all aspects at Phnom Tamao can continue to improve,” Marx said, adding that he hoped the incident would raise the zoo’s profile and boost support to help the forests recover.
A scramble to replant fallen trees
While Marx noted that Wildlife Alliance was not involved in the reforestation efforts led by Reththy, one of the instigators behind the deforestation in Phnom Tamao, Navatra, also took to social media to declare his support for the government’s announcement and then invited people to help replant trees that his project had felled just days earlier.
Whether Navatra’s invitation extends beyond the realm of social media remains unclear, but the replanting process on the ground was rife with confusion and a lack of coordination as of Aug. 9.
Residents suggested that employees of Mong Reththy Group were supplying the saplings, which was then confirmed by a group of men clad in attire bearing the tycoon’s company logo. The oknha’s employees said that around 60 people from the company were on the ground in Phnom Tamao to find volunteers from nearby villages and supply them with the trees and tools to undo the damage wrought upon the forest.
None of the employees were able to say how many trees were needed, how many volunteers had been recruited, or how long the process would take.
Strewn with litter accumulated over the course of the day, the northeastern corner of Phnom Tamao forest, where the clearing had begun the week prior, hosted a confused mass of people busying themselves with saplings, tools and trucks.
Chhum Rotha, one of a group of monks visiting from neighboring Ong Pasaom district in Takeo province, said it felt good to see the community come together to plant trees, but expressed his remorse at the fact they had been cut down in the first place.
“This is a natural asset, these forests were here since 1979,” he said. “When the forests are gone, everything is lost. It’s a pity that so much has been cleared already because it will take a very long time for a forest to grow as big as this.”
But while Rotha, his group of monks and many more had come to Phnom Tamao to join in the replanting efforts, a cavalcade of local residents had come simply to collect the immense volume of wood that was left in the wake of the excavators.
“I regret seeing all this forest cleared and I feel bad for the animals who lived here,” said Oun Sokhon, a resident of the nearby Tonle Bati lake, which is also set to be filled in following a governmental sub-decree that privatized the area.
“I’m just here to collect the wood, we can use it for cooking,” Sokhon said. “Usually, we cannot bring our knives and tools in here, they would be confiscated, but now we can take what we need. Still, I am happy that the development was canceled.”
‘A truly nationwide movement’
All across the forest clearing, residents from nearby villages were out in force, frantically chopping and loading up felled trees, but few could offer any explanation for the sudden decision to backtrack on the development of Phnom Tamao.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, leader of numerous environmental campaigns in Cambodia and founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, noted that unlike other attempts by civil society groups or activists to halt the destruction of Cambodia’s natural resources, Phnom Tamao came under scrutiny from all sectors of society.
According to Gonzalez-Davidson, whose activism against hydropower development in the Cardamom Mountains saw him deported and barred from reentering Cambodia in 2015, the reversal of Phnom Tamao’s fate by Hun Sen represents “the very first environmental campaign for a very long time—perhaps as far back as in 2015 with the Chhay Areng hydro dam project—where there appears to be a truly nationwide movement asking for the destruction not to happen.”
He pointed to other projects whose environmental impacts have been protested largely by the communities affected and a handful of activists attempting to support them as one possible reason why Phnom Tamao was spared complete destruction, while Phnom Penh’s lakes, vast tracts of forest, coast and mountains are not.
The veteran activist added that the economic benefit of clearing Phnom Tamao’s forests might not have outweighed the sheer volume of public criticism, but cautioned against reading too much into Hun Sen’s announcement, noting that Cambodia’s environment is only protected when it’s politically expedient to do so.
“Having said that, this is a great victory for civil society and for the general population who have expressed their views on social media, and will not only motivate many but will also doubtlessly inspire new campaigns in other parts of the country,” Gonzalez-Davidson said. “This will, in turn, make it harder for the regime to destroy other parts of the country with total impunity as they have been doing for the last three decades.”
‘We cannot undo the damage done’
For many residents of Phnom Tamao though, the scenes of churned-up soil, hacked-up tree roots, and razed forest offer little to be optimistic about.
Deeper inside the forest sits Thma Ontong Pagoda in the village of Ou Phia. From the pagoda’s peak, the extent of the damage done in just one week is thrown into stark relief as the thick, verdant deciduous forest canopy stops abruptly, giving way to scarred earth.
From its leafy green seclusion on the ground, the whir of chainsaws can be heard from all around, and a motley convoy of motorbikes, trucks and cars loaded with fallen trees can be seen through the newly formed forest’s edge.
Soth Phally has lived in Thma Ontong Pagoda for three years and said that it’s been a constant attraction for visitors, mostly urban residents who rarely get to see nature of the kind that had been preserved in Phnom Tamao.
“Now we have lost a lot of forest, a lot of natural beauty—recently, people have been in tears, crying in remorse,” said Phally, who said he has traveled the length of the clearing in recent days to observe the destruction. “I feel very depressed by it, there’s nothing to compare to this loss, my arms and legs feel weak.”
Phally, among the other residents of the pagoda, relied on the forest to collect mushrooms, vegetables and firewood, but even with Hun Sen’s announcement annulling the development projects, Phally said he’s unsure what the future holds for Phnom Tamao.
“We felt some hope after we heard the announcement,” he said. “I participated in the tree planting today, but these new trees are small, the trees we lost were big—we cannot undo the damage done.”