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Cambodia diary 25: what’s a forest worth?

 

Chiclob is a small community in the north-east corner of the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary (PPWS). During 2012 it was one of four communities in PPWS to be granted its own Community Protected Area (CPA). This legal status gives them rights over a block of forest, in this case of 2,989 hectares, for the next 15 years. The community members are empowered to manage their forest, to determine how it is to be used and how the benefits accruing from its natural resources are shared out.

The age rings of the felled tree.The age rings of the felled tree. © Mark Wright / WWF-Cambodia

One of the key resources scattered across the forest are resin trees – tall, straight, tropical hardwoods which, under traditional ownership systems, are recognised as the property of different families.

If a small hole is made in the trunk and a fire made inside, the tree is encouraged to ooze resin which is collected in the base of the chopped hole. This sweet-smelling, sticky liquid is used locally for incense, adhesives and helping waterproof boats – but now, thanks to WWF support, it is finding a new and potentially very lucrative market in the European cosmetics industry. Currently each tree can produce about US$100 worth of resin per year – though this is expected to rise – and will continue to do so for several decades.

Scorch marks on the felled resin tree.The scorch marks on the tree are from the sustainable extraction of the resin – which means that this tree was able to provide a steady income to the community. © Mark Wright / WWF-Cambodia

Abutting the CPA, a large economic land concession has been granted to a company for agri-business development. It now appears that staff from this company have specifically targeted and then used chainsaws to fell about 30 resin trees outside of their concession area and inside the CPA, presumably hoping to make a quick profit from the timber value of the trees – anything up to $1800 for each one.

This is despite the legal protection offered by the CPA status, despite the presence of a PPWS ranger station nearby and despite their being a specific law forbidding the cutting of resin trees that are being used for livelihood purposes.

Community members examining the felled tree.Community members examining the felled tree. © Mark Wright / WWF-Cambodia

In doing so those who have cut the trees have not just shown a certain contempt for the law and a total disregard for the local community, but they have put short-term personal gain ahead of long-term community benefits. They have not simply stolen timber they have denied the rightful owners a livelihood. In a real sense they have robbed them of part of their inherited wealth and their future security.

To be fair, the Provincial Council recently responded to this and investigated the circumstances. Our hope was that the outcome of this process would send the very strong message that the rights of communities and of the environment really are taken very seriously.

I’ve delayed writing this blog post for a few weeks because I wanted to be able to tell the complete story, including the results of the compensation talks – which have now been finalised. The company have admitted to chopping the trees and it has been agreed they will:

  • give back 7 trees to the community who can sell them for their timber value
  • compensate the community for a further 10 trees, paying the equivalent of $75, in total, for them. The company then get to keep those 10 trees which they can sell. There is no mention of what will happen with the other cut trees
  • provide 10 litres of rice wine and a 30kg pig to have a traditional ceremony to appease the spirits
  • provide 3,000 kg of cement (worth $300) to the community – it’s noted that much of this is earmarked for repairing the roads that have been damaged by the heavy logging trucks.

It is impossible to look at this outcome and not feel that the community have been treated awfully. In essence, the company get to keep a minimum of 10 trees, worth in excess of $10,000, for which they have had to pay out less than $500.

This is hardly the deterrent that we were hoping for and WWF will take this up with the authorities to see if we can have this overturned. All we will be asking for is that the community are compensated in line with their real loss – and to an extent that will discourage other companies from acting in a similarly cavalier and dismissive manner in the future.

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