Cambodia’s prime minister has ordered a million hectares of forest be included in protected zones as the country faces one of the world’s fastest deforestation rates.
The move, which covers five new areas of forest, will bump Cambodia’s conservation zones up by a fifth, bringing more than a quarter of the country’s land under protection.
“The Ministry of Environment must…list the five forests as protected areas,” said the order signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, which was seen by AFP on Saturday.
The new conservation areas will include parts of Prey Lang — a forest where activists have long been risking their lives to expose the illegal logging that has eviscerated Cambodia’s forest cover.
The lucrative trade, lubricated by violence and bribery of forestry officials and border guards, has seen around a third of the country’s forests cleared in the past thirty years.
Hun Sen has been in power throughout that time, but conservationists say he has made little headway in reducing illegal logging despite trumpeting several crackdowns.
His government has been criticised for allowing firms to clear hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest land — including in protected zones — for everything from rubber and sugar cane plantations to hydropower dams.
Other forests named in the new order are Prey Preah Roka, Prey Siem Pang Khang Lech, Prey Chrak Robeang Khang Tbong and Prey Veun Sai — all of which were previously administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.
The NGO Conservation International welcomed the new protections, calling the decree a “bold move”.
“These sites represent the most important forests in Cambodia for biodiversity conservation and support of human wellbeing, and if managed correctly could lead to a paradigm shift in Cambodia’s development pathway,” said Tracy Farrell, the regional director of CI’s Greater Mekong program.
According to the organisation, Cambodia’s forests provide refuge to over 800 globally threatened species, more than half of which depend on forests to survive.
Last week Cambodian authorities banned a documentary about a high-profile land activist, Chhut Vuthy, who was shot dead by a military policeman while investigating deforestation in a remote forest in 2012.
Two weak monsoons have resulted in severe water shortages and crop losses in as many as 10 states, prompting extreme measures including curfews near water sources and water trains sent to the worst-affected regions.
Many dejected farmers are now moving to cities and towns to work as daily wage labourers to overcome their financial losses and support their families.
At a scruffy, makeshift camp in north Mumbai, in one of the worst-affected states, dozens of migrants who have fled their drought-stricken villages queue to fill plastic containers with water.
Migrants from rural areas usually come to the city in January or February to get jobs on construction sites, but in March and April the number of arrivals kept increasing.
“There are some 300-350 families here. That’s a total of more than 1,000 people,” said Sudhir Rane, a volunteer running the camp in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar suburb.
“There is a drought and there is no water back home so more families have come here this year,” he told AFP.
Babies cling to mothers lined up to register with officials. They are allocated a small space in the dusty wasteland, where wooden posts combine with tarpaulin sheets to make rickety tented homes.
“We had no choice but to come here. There was no water, no grain, no work. There was nothing to eat and drink. What could we do?” 70-year-old Manubai Patole told AFP.
“We starved for five days. At least here we are getting food.”
– ‘Better to break stones’ –
Weather forecasters in New Delhi this month predicted an above-average monsoon, offering a ray of hope for the country’s millions of farmers and their families.But many, like Gassiram Meharwal from Bangaye village in Madhya Pradesh, are not optimistic asthey struggle to cultivate their crops.
Meharwal’s two-acre farm has suffered three wheat crop failures in as many years, leading him to lose an estimated 100,000 rupees ($1,500).
“Our fields are doomed, they have almost turned into concrete,” he said.
Thousands of acres of land in his village go uncultivated and fears are mounting for the cattle, which face a shortage of fodder.
Desperate for income, 32-year-old Meharwal, who supports eight members of his family including his children and younger brothers, left to work as a labourer in the city of Gwalior, four hours away.
“There is no guarantee that it will rain this year. Predictions are fine but no one comes to your help when the crops fail,” he said.
“It is better to use your energy breaking stones,”reports AFFFP, PHNOM PENH.