Massive deforestation is playing a crucial role in the droughts that have devastated Cambodia. But despite an official ban on timber exports, forests continue to be cut down at a record rate

This article was published in the June edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here

One of only two countries in the world to feature a building on its national flag, Cambodia’s cultural narrative is inseparable from the legacy of the Angkorian empire. The architectural wonder of Angkor Wat and the feats of hydraulic engineering overseen by the god-kings of Angkor afforded them great economic and political power, and remain a source of great national pride.

“Don’t scorn us; we built Angkor Wat when some countries didn’t have independence and others didn’t even exist,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said in response to foreign observers who criticised Cambodia’s 2002 local election process for failing to meet international standards.

But while the authoritarian leader has been quick to point to the wondrous achievements of the Angkorian empire as proof of his country’s technical prowess, he has been less willing to learn from its demise. The world’s largest pre-industrial city was built upon its ability to manipulate water, but water was also what brought it to its knees.

Today, the largely agrarian Southeast Asian nation is faced with the same dual threat of flooding and drought – and rampant deforestation means the situation is fast deteriorating, with a mounting body of scientific research showing that deforestation affects our climate more profoundly than we previously realised.

Not only does cutting down trees release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps heat and causes global temperatures to rise, it also directly causes drought and flash flooding.

“We don’t know exactly how much forest is needed [in Cambodia],” said Simon Mahood, senior technical advisor at the Wildlife Conservation Society, “but we do know that for water and biodiversity, large intact forest ecosystems are important, and they are the most important factor in ensuring resilience to climate change.”

Cambodia’s forests have been ravaged by large-scale logging since the early 1990s when both Khmer Rouge forces and the Phnom Penh government began selling timber concessions to private companies to fund their respective war chests.

The Cambodian government awarded between 30 and 40 logging concessions to private companies during the mid-1990s, temporarily handing over 39% of Cambodia’s total land, according to a report by environmental watchdog Global Witness that exposed the government-linked syndicates driving forest crime. What’s more, the report stated, these companies often operated beyond their legal boundaries and “committed serious human rights abuses against people living inside or adjacent to forest concessions.”

Read more: How Cambodia’s record deforestation is driving crippling drought


In the wake of severe drought this year and with heavy rain predicted in the next weeks, work has begun on a European Union funded EUR 1 million project to boost disaster resilience in Cambodia.

The programme, which commenced in July 2016, aims to help at least 150,000 Cambodians prepare for droughts, floods and storms. However, for the first time, work is focused on cities like Phnom Penh and Kampot, as much as rural areas in Kampong Speu, Siem Reap, Battambang and Kampong Chhnang provinces.

"Climate change means natural disasters are getting more frequent and more severe across the country,” said Hun Boramey, Acting Country Director at ActionAid Cambodia. “The 2013 floods cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the human cost of this year’s drought is impossible to calculate.”

Read more: Disaster-Proofing Cambodia: New Phase of Disaster Resilience Work Gets Underway


  • Long known as a hotspot for rapid and largely illegal deforestation for logging, Cambodia was singled out in a May 2017 EIA report.
  • The report was the result of months of undercover investigations which found that from November 2016, more than 300,000 cubic meters (nearly 10.6 million cubic feet) of timber have been illegally felled in a wildlife sanctuary and two protected areas in Cambodia.
  • Most of the timber was sold to Vietnam and generated $13 million in kickbacks from Vietnamese timber traders.
  • Environmental experts believe that a much-publicized crackdown on illegal logging launched in Cambodia in early 2016 was little more than theatrics.


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – It was June 1999, and Cambodia’s then-Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Chhea Song, was addressing a regional symposium on forestry law enforcement in Phnom Penh.

“The…action of the [Royal Government of Cambodia]…has resulted in almost 95 percent reduction in illegal felling [of trees] and the efforts are being continued. The small-scale illegal operators, particularly the ox-buffalo cart owners account for the remaining 5 percent,” he said in his speech.

Describing the speech in his book, “Governing Cambodia’s Forests,” author Andrew Cock says Song was able to make such a claim because the government at that time was, “Adopting the perspective that any type of extractive activity that was in some way authorized by the leadership was by definition legal.” In other words, logging being carried out by concessionaires was being ignored.

In the nearly two decades since that speech, things have arguably gone from bad to worse.

Cambodia’s logging problems are so serious that in 2014, Global Forest Watch said the rate of deforestation in the country between 2011 and 2014 had accelerated at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world, and that four times the amount of tree cover had been lost during that period. The scale of deforestation that has been seen across the country can be seen in satellite images of one area on December 31, 2000 and then again October 30, 2015.

So it came as little surprise when, in May 2017, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency released the results of a probe into illegal logging and smuggling that laid bare the extent of the collusion on both sides of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. Since November 2016, more than 300,000 cubic meters (nearly 10.6 million cubic feet) of timber have been illegally felled in a wildlife sanctuary and two protected areas in Cambodia, some of which receive EU funding. Officials have reportedly made at least $13 million in kickbacks from Vietnamese timber traders.

Once over the border — despite a ban on timber exports — Vietnamese officials would also receive hefty bribes to alter their quotas and give the illegal wood a legal status, then slap a tax on it. Just days after the investigation was published, Vietnam and the EU completed their negotiations and formally agreed on the text of a would-be Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA).

Read more: Long Plagued by Illegal Logging, Cambodia Faces Accusations of Corruption


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