- Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary has lost more than 60 percent of its forest cover since it was established in 1993, with most of the loss occurring since 2010.
- A big driver behind the deforestation in Beng Per and in many other Cambodian protected areas was Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), which are areas of land – often in protected areas – allocated by the government to corporations aiming to invest in agriculture for short-term financial gains. Large areas of Beng Per were carved out for ELCs in 2011.
- While the Cambodian government stopped officially allocating ELCs in 2012, deforestation is still hitting the park hard as small-scale illegal logging gobbles up remaining forest outside ELC areas. And once the land is denuded, it’s considered fair game for new plantation development.
- Experts working on the ground say corruption is fuelling the widespread destruction of Cambodia’s forests, and is deeply entrenched in many different sectors including the federal government and local forest protection agencies.
As you approach Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, five hours north of Phnom Penh, it’s difficult to tell exactly where the park begins. There is no welcome sign, and in many areas there are no trees at all, the land more reminiscent of parched African savanna than Southeast Asian rainforest. Where trees do appear, they stand in uniform rows, with vessels taped to their trunks — archetypal features of rubber plantations.
While each area of terrain differs from the other, they typify the decimation of protected forest that’s ravaged the once great Beng Per for more than a decade. Vigilante groups and land defenders are going against the grain and doing what they can to protect the jungle, but they’re exceptional cases in a wider tale of loss. When first established in 1993, the park covered 2,425 square kilometers (940 square miles). By 2000, 1,990 square kilometers (770 square miles) of forest remained, of which more than half — 1,020 square kilometers (390 square miles) — was lost between 2001 and 2018, with the heaviest damage occurring from 2010 onward.
This trend shows no sign of slowing. The Global Land Analysis and Discovery lab at the University of Maryland detected more than 27,000 deforestation alerts between Jan. 1 and April 25 this year. The consequences are dire, affecting not only native tree and animal species, but also the communities that call the forest their home.
It doesn’t take long to discover part of what’s causing this. Shortly after dawn, truck after truck, each packed full of freshly cut logs, trundle down the main highway heading south from the sanctuary. Outside every home lie vast piles of timber, comprised of various species.