Government Accuses NASA of Incitement Over Deforestation Data

The Environment Ministry has accused the U.S.’s space agency and local media outlets of “incitement” for publishing and misreporting year-old deforestation data that show years of rapid forest loss.

In 2015, the University of Maryland used U.S. satellite data to reveal that between 2001 and 2014 the annual forest loss rate in Cambodia accelerated by 14.4 percent, leading to one of the highest deforestation rates in the world since the turn of the century.

A map of deforestation in Cambodia between 2000 and 2013. The red areas show forest lost in 2013, the yellow areas show forest lost in 2000, and the orange areas show forest lost between the two years. (University of Maryland)

Under the headline “Cambodia’s Forests are Disappearing,” the university’s findings were republished last week by the Earth Observatory, a website dedicated to promoting environmental data gathered by the U.S.’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Several local media outlets picked up on the Earth Observatory report with their own stories.

On Friday, the Environment Ministry released a statement accusing both NASA and unnamed outlets of deliberately trying to sully the government’s image.

“The publication of old data by the NASA Earth Observatory and its repetition by some media with wrong information shows an attempt at incitement and at confusing the public with the desire to criticize the government,” the ministry said.

It accused the local media outlets of conflating the increase in the annual rate of forest loss with the actual amount of forest that was lost each year.

“The Environment Ministry wishes to state that the data of 14.4 percent shows the rate of the average annual increase of forest loss, not the rate of annual forest loss from 2001 to 2014,” the statement said.

The ministry noted 10 different steps it had taken since 2012 to reverse the trend, including a freeze on granting new leases for large-scale agribusiness projects, a task force set up to target forest crimes and a major reorganization of the environment and agriculture ministries.

Contacted on Sunday, Yeam Socheameta, an assignment editor for Radio Free Asia, denied any intentional misrepresentation of the report. But he admitted that his reporter had misunderstood the data.

“We checked the report and found the wrong figure, but we corrected it after one day,” he said.

Despite some admitted shortcomings, the University of Maryland’s analysis of the satellite data has been lauded by many experts in the field as offering an unprecedented look at the scale of forest loss around the world.

According to its analysts, Cambodia’s deforestation rate peaked in 2010, though the country still managed to experience the fastest acceleration in forest loss in the world between 2001 and 2014 and one of the highest rates of forest loss overall.

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