Deforestation in Cambodia raises concern about land degradation

15 Apr 2010

It is another corn harvesting season in Pailin, a province in northwestern Cambodia, and farmers are busy harvesting and packing the produce for buyers.

A war zone during the Khmer Rouge era, today Pailin is a major agricultural center where corn, bean and cassava farms are the main lifeline for many residents like Nuon Thol.

“This plantation has provided me with the income that I need to support my family and the education of my four children,” he said. More than 80 percent of the Cambodia’s population lives in the countryside and depends on subsistence farming.

But land degradation and deforestation, a side effect of increased farming activity, has become a major environmental issue.

“The main cause of the loss of forest is the increase in the population” said Deputy Governor Leng Vuth. “We now have 70,000 residents compared to 10,000 – a seven-fold increase in a 10-year period.”

In the past, Pailin’s main economic activity was gemstone mining. Today, that has shifted to agriculture, and approximately 40,000 hectares of Pailin’s forests have been cleared and burned to make way for crops including corn, beans and cassava.

UNDP, along with the Ministry of Agriculture, is addressing the growing environmental impact of farming by identifying factors that contribute to land degradation. This land management programme will educate farmers about appropriate farming techniques that insure sustainable land use.

Beyond deforestation, there is an urgent need to reform farming techniques as a whole; for example, to boost farm yield, farmers use herbicides to control weeds and grass but these same chemicals, which help save on labour costs, have a detrimental long term effect on soil quality.

Moreover, most farms near Pailin are situated on hilly terrain, but farmers plough them in up-and-down lines instead of across the slopes. Agricultural experts say this technique exacerbates top soil erosion during the rainy season. Upstream erosion is a major factor in silt and pollution build-up downstream in provinces near the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water reservoir in Southeast Asia.

“The people in Pailin will be the first to be affected by the consequences [of unsustainable farming techniques] before other areas around the Tonle Sap Lake,” said Tan Boun Suy, a UNDP project consultant who is also from Cambodia. “But soil erosion from forest clearing here will make the lake become shallower. Another effect of deforestation is on biodiversity, and this could pose a major issue for the future of our country.”

“We are doing everything we can to protect the remaining forest on the Blue Mountain range because if we lose that forest Pailin may become a virtual desert” said Leng Vuth. His warning resonates throughout Cambodia; protecting the forest means preserving the ecosystem that the poor depend on.