Researchers Put a Price Tag on Deforestation in Cambodia

Researchers from Australia have put a dollar figure on what they are calling one of Cambodia’s most important forests in hopes of helping stave off its loss to loggers, poachers and farmers looking for new land.

A team from the Australian National University (ANU), working with the NGO Conservation International, say they calculate the financial contribution of northeast Cambodia’s Veun Sai-Siem Pang National Park at just shy of $130 million a year.

Their paper on the park, which straddles the border between the provinces of Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng, appeared in this month’s edition of the Journal of Ecosystem Services.

“We hope the value of the forest is more broadly understood by the government,” said Alison Behie, one of the authors of the paper and ANU’s head of biological anthropology. “We would like to make people more aware of the value of it so we could keep up the protection.”

The researchers came up with the forest’s value by essentially adding up how much it would cost to make up for the fallout from its loss.

They calculated, for example, that the 55,000-hectare forest provides a $56.2 million value just by cleaning the air of harmful gases.

“We calculated that if we took all the trees away, how much would the government have to spend to remove those gases out of the atmosphere,” Ms. Behie said.

By the same token, they say the forest gives, or saves, Cambodia $47 million by improving soil fertility, $31 million by storing water and $22.2 million by preventing soil erosion.

“What happens when the soil erodes, because the water is moving so quickly…it removes minerals from the soil,” Ms. Behie said. That makes the soil less fertile and imposes a cost of restoring that fertility artificially. The runoff also makes local water sources less potable, adding the cost of purifying them.

Besides that, the forest is also home to more than 200 species of mammals, reptiles and birds, including what ANU believes to be the world’s largest group of endangered northern buff-cheeked gibbons.

Ms. Behie said logging in the area had picked up noticeably since she started studying the forest’s endangered gibbons in 2012, judging by the rising number of tree stumps she and her team have come across and the increasingly common sound of chainsaws. But she said the pace of logging may have at least leveled off since they conducted their research for the paper in 2015.

Ms. Behie said she was hopeful that the national park status the forest was finally granted in April last year might turn the trend around. But even the government admits that it lacks the manpower to do a proper job of patrolling Cambodia’s protected areas, even before the extra 1 million hectares—including Veun Sai-Siem Pang—established last year.

Some conservationists also blame much of the logging on corruption. A 2015 investigation by Global Witness found loggers working for timber magnate Try Pheap looting Veun Sai of its most valuable trees. Business mogul Kith Meng has repeatedly been accused of doing the same thing in Siem Pang by locals, and more recently the police. Both men, who enjoy close ties with the government, deny the allegations and have never faced prosecution.

Bou Vorsak, country director of the NGO BirdLife International, does work just west of Veun Sai-Siem Pang National Park, in the Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary. He said the study could be helpful.

“It’s useful to compare if we lost the forest, how much is the damage,” he said. “It’s a useful report for decision-makers to make decisions.”

A spokesman for the Environment Ministry, which manages the country’s protected areas, could not be reached for comment.

Cambodia has suffered one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world since the turn of the century. Though the pace has slowed since 2012, protected areas continue to be heavily hit.

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