Prey Lang and its forest communities are clearly at risk.
Previously classified as state forest, the government has re-classified much of the broader forest areas as State Private Land, making it available for land concessions. During the 1990s, the entire forest was divided into logging concessions. In 2002, after public outcry and donor pressure, most of Prey Lang’s remaining logging concessions were suspended.
Prey Lang is now threatened by dozens of agro-industrial plantations and mining concessions. The majority of agro-industrial development is for rubber. The most contentious area of development is on Prey Lang’s western side, where thick forest (not degraded forest as has been claimed) is divided between at least three rubber concessions, all connected to the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG). While neighboring Vietnam and Laos have both put caps on domestic rubber production, Cambodia’s prime minister has declared support for its continuing expansion and Prey Lang is one of the few areas in the country where continuing expansion is possible. Even so, early indications are that the rubber will not thrive in Prey Lang’s mostly poor soils and that the concessionaires may switch to other crops, namely cassava, in demand for bio-fuels.
In the meantime, concessionaires have profited handsomely from clearing prime forest, with community members complaining that company logging, as well “anarchic” logging ushered in by new roads, has plundered luxury wood and the resin trees on which local livelihoods depend. Prey Lang Network members report that upwards of 250,000 resin trees have been lost, despite the fact that this is illegal under Cambodian law.
The companies have also engulfed rotational agricultural land, forest orchards or “chamkar,” and grazing areas, all central to local food security. Furthermore, some companies have forbidden local community members from crossing company property, blocking direct routes to the forest. Consequently, people are forced to make arduous, expensive and time-consuming detours to access their remaining resin trees and the other non-timber forest products (NTFPs) on which they depend.
More than two dozen mining licenses have been issued to companies primarily for exploration, mostly for iron and gold. Most, if not all, have been assigned accompanying large concessions. While companies are not expected to develop their entire concessions into mines, mining companies have felled timber for their exploration activities as well as fencing and blocking large areas of forest.
The recent upsurge in gold prices has motivated a rush of illegal gold-mining in Prey Lang. This is displacing the local indigenous artisanal miners who have been told that the small-scale environmentally friendly mining they have practiced for generations is illegal. Meanwhile dozens of environmentally-damaging mines, operated by outsiders and employed migrants, have multiplied along Prey Lang’s rivers. These mines use toxic chemicals such as cyanide, to wash the gold, thereby endangering Prey Lang’s ecology and downstream communities, including major towns.
A Chinese company has invested considerable funds in exploring for iron ore in Preah Vihear. Since the long-haul transport of raw ore would render mining unfeasible, a steel plant has long been speculated for somewhere in the greater Prey Lang area, probably close to the Mekong in Stung Treng.
A series of new roads, including a major road cutting across the north side of Prey Lang, have already damaged if not destroyed important areas of riparian forest. The roads are also facilitating an influx of illegal loggers and migrants who are illegally cutting timber, clearing forest, and poaching. High value trees, mostly endangered species such as beng and rosewood are rapidly disappearing. It is important to note that in-migration is being fueled by Cambodia’s population growth and land tenure problems around the country.
By law, all development projects are subject to environmental impact assessments inclusive of consultations with affected communities. Prey Lang Network members and forest communities report that, to their knowledge, no environmental impact assessments have been undertaken on any of the major developments, certainly none that involved community consultation.
Even considering the large number of resident indigenous people (mostly Kuy) and their long history in the area, the Kuys’ legal claims to the forest have not been recognized. This disregards both Cambodian constitutional provisions and rights guaranteed under the United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people, to which Cambodia is a signatory.