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US-Cambodia tensions grow as USAID cuts forest protection project

Illegal logging by well-connected companies reportedly accelerating despite denials

Rangers patrol Prey Lang Forest, one of Southeast Asia's last remaining evergreen woodlands. (Photo by Peter Guest)

PHNOM PENH -- The U.S. announced on Thursday it would prematurely end its flagship $21 million forest protection program in Cambodia.

In a statement, the embassy in the Southeast Asian nation said the USAID agency would stop funding the Greening Prey Lang project because Cambodia's government was not doing enough to stop deforestation in protected areas. Instead, the situation was "getting worse," the embassy said.

Prey Lang, the largest contiguous area of lowland dry evergreen and semievergreen forest left in mainland Southeast Asia, has lost 38,000 hectares of forest -- nearly 9% -- since 2016, the embassy noted.

"Well-documented illegal logging continues in and around the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, and Cambodian authorities have not adequately prosecuted wildlife crimes or put a stop to these illicit activities," the statement read.

"In addition, the government continues to silence and target local communities and their civil society partners who are justifiably concerned about the loss of their natural resources."

The funding will be redirected to support civil society, the private sector and the expansion of climate-sensitive agriculture, the embassy added.

The end of the USAID program marks a further deterioration of the U.S.-Cambodia relationship, which has been strained in recent years as Prime Minister Hun Sen has drifted further into Beijing's orbit.

The decision comes less than a week after the U.S. defense attache to Cambodia, Marcus Ferrara, abruptly ended a visit to Ream Naval Base after being denied full access to the facility, which is undergoing a Beijing-backed expansion.

That trip was organized after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Phnom Penh on June 1 and told Hun Sen that Washington had "serious concerns" about China's "military presence" at the site.

Cambodian and Chinese leaders have repeatedly denied that there are plans to host Chinese military assets at the base, situated on the Gulf of Thailand.

Following the aborted visit, Cambodia's Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of "distorting the facts." It said Ferrara had been at the site three hours but demanded to enter a place "not included in the initial request."

It did not disclose further details about that location, and the U.S. has declined to comment further.

The announcement of the end of the Prey Lang program followed a meeting between U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy and Cambodian Environment Minister Say Sam Al on Wednesday.

The ministry and minister have yet to respond to requests for comment from Nikkei.

The son of a senior member of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, Sam Al, 41, was one of Cambodia's youngest ministers when given the post in 2013.

At the time, there was tentative hope that the Australian-educated scion would push reforms to combat endemic logging by politically connected tycoons that has devastated vast swaths of the country's forests.

Activists, however, say the situation has gotten worse. Several environmental campaigners have been detained by authorities for "incitement," including within the Prey Lang sanctuary.

Monitoring group Global Forest Watch estimates that between 2001 and 2018, Cambodia lost 557,000 hectares of tree cover in protected areas, an 11% chunk of zones that are ostensibly off-limits.

Started in 2018, the USAID Greening Prey Lang program, implemented by consulting and engineering company Tetra Tech, involved 120 staffers and partnered with NGOs including the Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International.

It helped train forest rangers, community members and local authorities and introduced a program to detect illegal activities and monitor the forest.

But loggers continued to carve away at Prey Lang. Satellite data analyzed by the University of Maryland shows the rate of forest loss for the sanctuary has accelerated in the past two years.

A report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime released in March found at least 54 active logging areas within Prey Lang.

The trade is run by politically connected tycoons, the study found, with the company Angkor Plywood a "highly influential actor within the Cambodian timber market."

"The sophistication and political connections of such actors pose steep challenges to those seeking to rein in the illegal logging trade and halt the rampant spread of deforestation," the authors wrote.

Cambodian officials have repeatedly claimed that large-scale logging operations no longer exist in the country.

In recent evidence to the contrary, Hong Kong customs officers in late April and early May seized 211 tons of endangered tropical hardwood -- the most illegal timber seized by the port city in five years.

Jam-packed in seven shipping containers, the $1.1 million shipment had arrived from Cambodia.

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