Open Case Studies/FRST522/Cambodia

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Illegal logging in Cambodia

Is the Cambodian government making efforts to combat illegal logging?

Introduction to the Economic Land Concessions and tenure rights over forest land

Cambodia has a land area of 181,035 kilometers, of which 56.5% is classified as forest land, 32.1% agricultural land and 11.4% for other land use purposes.[1]. During the Khmer Rouge era, from 1975-1979, private land ownership was abolished. The Land Law 2001 introduced state public land and state private land that is mostly converted to Economic Land Concessions (ELC). It is estimated that 25% of the rural poor are landless, with an annual increase of 2%. 40% of the rural poor are also land-poor as the possession of less than 0.5 ha per household cannot produce enough food for subsistence. [2]

The system of granting concessions was introduced under the French colonial system. The first concessions were initiated in 1874. The system of land concessions continued after Independence, ceased during the Khmer Rouge administration and was reintroduced after the Land Law 1992 was passed. Legally MAFF is the only authority for granting ELCs. In practice, the other authorities are also granted rights to issue concessions. During 1993-2002, about 6.5 million ha, 70% of the forest cover were held under concession[3]. In the wake of negative impacts from the concessions, this system was abolished in 2002. With an insignificant portion of timber supply from the Production Forests and Plantations and very little data found on timber logging from mining and hydropower projects, the EU-FLEGT Facility (2014) concluded that Economic Concession Lands had become the dominant supplier of timber in Cambodia. [4] In Cambodia, the Permanent Forest Estates (PFE) consist of Permanent Forest Reserves and Private Forests. The PFEs are further classified into Production forests, protection forests and conversion forestland for other development purposes. According to the Forestry Law, all natural production forest types are state property managed by the Forestry Administration, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery. The State should recognize and ensure the traditional user rights of the local communities living within or near the Permanent Forest Reserves, for the purpose of traditional customs, beliefs, religions and livelihoods. The traditional user rights for forest products and by-products do not require the permit. The MAFF has the authority to allocate any part of the PFR to a community living inside or near a forest area in the form of a Community Forest. [5].

A snapshot of illegal logging

Map of Cambodia, public domain on Wikimedia Commons
Illegally logged timber transportation, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, the forest cover in Cambodia decreased sharply from 75% to less than 35% [6], mainly due to the illegal, but officially sanctioned logging, by the Royal Cambodian Army Forces and Khmer Rouge. [7]. To be specific, legal logging accounts for 33% of logging activity and illegal logging accounts for 2/3 of the logging.[6]. In 1997, 2,024,000-3,155,000 m3, or 70% of the total harvest were recorded as illegally logged. In terms of profitability, illegally logged wood earns USD120 per m3, 2.4 times more than that in the legal concession lands. .[3]. Cambodia first brought the term "conflict timber" to international attention. Conflict timber refers to the financing of conflict through the harvest and sale of timber or conflict emerging as a result of competition over timber or other forest resources. The remnant groups of the Khmer Rouge sold large stands of forest to purchase arms to continue political struggle.[6].

It is generally agreed that the Cambodian State is an authoritarian one-party state and Hun Sen and his networks are in full control. The predatory state apparatus is founded on coercive patronage networks between business elites, the prime minister, the CPP and government officials to benefit a minority of elites.[8]. Powerful individual actors such as the military, police, high-policy makers and politicians are thus highly complicit in illegal logging and timber trade.

Framing the Problem

Framing the Problem: A Forestry Perspective

Reboredo studied and reported on different causes of illegal logging such as poverty, weak governance and the absence of sustainable forest management, though these causes are not universally applicable to all the cases where illegal logging is found. [7].The illegal logging in Cambodia is a mixture of all the above-mentioned reasons and others.

Political background

Beginning with low-level cross-border raids and soon escalating into full-fledged war in December 1978, Vietnam and Cambodia had a warring period that lasted until 1991. Having experienced two decades of warfare and a Western-led economic embargo and a ruling authority-initiated genocide of a fifth of its population, Cambodia in the late 1980s was in a transition period. With reference to forests, forests were transmitted from Khmer Rouge-controlled territory into timber production[9]

Illegal logging on (conflicting) concession land systems

The actual management of the production forests take place through concession agreements with concessionaires. 63% was allocated as concession lands and some concessions even overlap. In Ratanakiri, for example, the combined allocation of protected areas, forestry and agricultural concessions exceeds 30% of the total land. Even national level allocations cover 102% of the land area in provinces.[10] The land overlaps might be partly attributed to a lack of vertical and horizontal communication among authorities at different levels. Even for the legal concessionaires, they may be readily evicted by overseas competitors. With the absence of or insufficiently executed law on the land, ambiguous land tenure claims as above-mentioned are normative. And in most cases where there are two claimants to land, it is always the more powerful party - the party with the covert or overt support of the State - that wins the battle.[6] Illegally cut logs found stockpiled in the concession areas could be used with ad hoc permits or licenses, or sale of confiscated logs through auctions. The Collection permits offer an efficient way of collecting revenue from illegally cut logs. In general, this system has left loopholes for the occurrence of illegal logging. [3].

Weak governance

According to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Cambodia ranks at 21 out of 100 in 2015, ranking 150th among the 168 countries surveyed. There is scant or no budget openness. [11]. As timber logging, transportation and trade require infrastructure, capital and coordinated skills, powerful stakeholders allied to government officials, either in the form of the military and other security forces, are better placed than other constituency groups to leverage resources and are almost always involved in the exploitation of timber for revenues. [6] In November 1995, 30 mainly foreign logging companies, were granted 6.3 million hectares of forest as concessions, which is three times the area that can support commercial logging. [6]. The revenues from these operations almost entirely bypass the national budget and represent an absolute loss to the country.

Framing the Problem: Layering Perspectives

The description above describes illegal logging in Cambodia from the perspective of a forestry student. In this section we welcome contributions from other perspectives. Those interested in contributing to this case study may use the following questions as a guide:

  1. How do scholars and professionals outside of forestry conceptualize the practice of illegal logging in Cambodia?
  2. What are other possible ways of framing this problem?
  3. What special expertise, resources, or theoretical orientations might others bring to help us understand this phenomenon better?

A case study: Cross-border illegal logging

The remote borderlands are generally isolated from the central state provinces and are generally regarded as marginalized sites of lawlessness. The Cambodian- Lao borderlands is an isolated locale rich in natural resources but poor in basic infrastructure. With geopolitical insignificance and inaccessibility of national capital flows, it has become a hotspot for illegal cross-border logging of luxury timbers. [8]. This area was marked as a site of conflicts and political turmoil when Cambodia and Vietnam were at war and illegal logging was used to support the war and the purchase of weapons.

Sekong village in Stung Treng Province, about 40km south of Attapeu and Champassak Provinces in Laos, is close to Cambodia’s largest national park - Virachey National Park. Stung Treng Province has 900 villagers and many have been involved in the illegal cross-border logging of luxury rosewood timber such as Siamese rosewood. [8] Compared to traditional income-earning activities such as resin-collection, fishing and hunting, much higher returns (US$300-3,000 per trip) from logging rosewood are paid to villagers by Cambodian timber traders and soldiers. In addition, transporting these illegally logged luxury timbers offers much higher taxes by traditional communities to the Cambodian border checkpoints, and offer opportunities for corruption to the soldiers and officers at the border whose salary is only US$25 per month[8].


Implications: A Forestry Perspective


Illegal logging leads to serious environmental problems such as biodiversity degradation, carbon stock reduction, reduced water quality and the outbreak of natural disasters among others. Once Illegal logging occurs at a large destructive scale, it leads to forest conversion and an alarming rate of deforestation and forest degradation. As some illegal logging occurs also in the protected areas, rare plants and animals may become threatened too.[7]

Deforestation and forest degradation have become the greatest source of forest carbon emissions. Sasaki found that carbon stock in production forest declined from 130.5 MgC ha-1 in 1993 to 115.2 MgC ha-1 in 2002. [12], contributing to the increasing carbon emissions to the atmosphere.


Illegal logging generates a large amount of benefits for the few elites as well as provides secretive livelihood opportunities for involved community members. Compared to the limited economic benefits for national or local stakeholders, more negative economic implications pose great challenges both for the nation and other sectors. As illustrated before, the revenue from illegal logging often bypasses the national exchequer and thus cannot be allocated for education, medical care and other public sectors. Illegally logged timber discourages sustainable management and sustainable logging practices, resulting in unfair competition with other companies that are legally logging. Illegal logging results in negative externalities. What is more, the local communities or even local authorities have not acquired a fair amount of the 'economic rent' [7] and Payment for Ecosystem(PES), while they lose accessibility and benefit rights to forest (ABS).


Forests serve cultural and spiritual purposes. Cambodia is a Buddhism-believing country and Buddhists believe trees are like our parents and that protecting trees means to eliminate the suffering of human beings. Some monks in Cambodia conserved the biggest community forest and won the UNDP Equator Prize for creating a best practice for biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.[13]


Mulcahy & Boissière stated that 80% of the rural poor depend on forests and agricultural land for their subsistence and livelihoods. Forest resources contribute between 30-42% of total household income for the rural people[14]. Illegal logging is destructive for the forest and harmful for the communities for whom the forest provides a livelihood, especially for women. Cambodia has been implementing REDD+ projects which are aimed to reduce deforestation and forest degradation. However, studies show that communities living in areas covered by REDD+ projects are being deprived of the accessibility to forests, that livestock husbandry interferes with their traditional way of life and livelihood opportunities. As such, conflicts between wood industry concerns and local communities are prevalent. As shown in the video (see above), the World Food Program estimated that approximately 3 million communities are living within 30 km of logging concessions and are severely affected by the illegal logging [15]. If they lose both the land for rice production and the resin trees inherited from their parents, they may find it impossible to feed themselves. In the future their children and grandchildren will similarly suffer.

Implications: Layering Perspectives

The description above describes the implications from illegal logging in Cambodia from the perspective of a forestry student. In this section we welcome contributions from other perspectives. Those interested in contributing to this case study may use the following questions as a guide:

  1. How could someone from a different discipline or profession add to the implications above?
  2. What other implications become apparent when illegal logging is viewed through the lens of other disciplines and professions?
  3. What special expertise, resources, or theoretical orientations might others bring to help us better understand the implications associated with illegal logging in Cambodia?

Combating illegal logging

The state forest authority should aim for efficiency, cost effectiveness, transparency and equability and have an auditing system. The government should carefully guide the preparation for establishing a chain of custody certification system and timber legality assurance system to ensure that future wood processing is based on legally harvested timber, and that processed timber from Cambodia can be sustainably exported. The government should work out a system to ensure the timber processing industry is in balance with its source of supply. .[16]. Three neighboring countries -- Thailand, Laos and Vietnam -- are currently engaged in negotiation processes of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement under EU-FLEGT[17]. The Cambodian government could also consider to engage in a similar international commitment.

The top agenda for the forest authority is to reform its land system, underline law compliance, and implement the Community Forestry Project, imparting communities with Access and Benefit Sharing Rights (ABS) and to solve the conflicts between the local community, forest management authority and concession holders. The timber industries and enterprises should have credible Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitments and obtain a Social License to Operate (SLO) and strengthen the concept of product of origins. Many international non-governmental organizations like the Environment Investigation Agency, Global Witness, Greenpeace and TRAFFIC should be supported so that they can continue to act as watchdogs over the illegal logging, processing, transportation and trade and provide capacity building programs for law enforcement agencies.


Recommendations: A Forestry Perspective

Illegal logging in Cambodia is a complex issue shaped by different political, economic and social factors at the national and international levels. Due to scant or insufficiently recorded data from the national authorities, illegally logged timber may be underestimated at certain periods. Illegal timber harvesting has become a major threat to deforestation and forest degradation in Cambodia. Though illegal logging has brought significant economic benefits to the political, military and business elites and even to local communities, the negative environmental, political, social and cultural implications cannot be neglected. Solving this issue needs long-term joint efforts from the national and international communities and requires positive changes to the current legal and operational systems.

At the national level, strengthening forest law enforcement, improving forest governance and improving the land use system are the top priorities. At the international level, those countries and industries who wish to ‘offset’ their logging damage through carbon market and REDD projects should reconsider this issue to avoid ‘leakage’. Instead, they should contribute to establish a well-monitored chain of custody or supply chain of legally-logged timber. As Cambodia is still one of the least developed countries whose economic development depends highly on natural resources, corruption in Cambodia cannot be halted within a short period of time and international timber demand is still robustly high. There is still a long way to go to alleviate or halt the current trajectory of illegal logging.

Recommendations: Layering Perspectives

What recommendations might someone from another discipline or profession make to combat the issue of illegal logging in Cambodia? Examples might include:

  • Law
  • Geography
  • Environmental Science
  • Social Justice
  • Economics
  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Philosophy


  1. World Bank. (n.d.).
  2. Oldenburg C, Neef A. Reversing land grabs or aggravating tenure insecurity? Competing perspectives on economic land concessions and land titling in Cambodia [J]. Law and Development Review, 2014, 7(1): 49-77.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 .Southavilay T, Castren T. Timber Trade and Wood Flow-Study[J]. Lao PDR. Poverty Reduction and Environmental Management in Remote Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Watersheds Project. Manilla: Asian Development Bank, 1998
  4. Understanding timber flows and control in Cambodia in the context of FLEGT (2014). Retrieved from +control+in+Cambodia+in+the+context+of+FLEGTc/03c0c17a-5dd0-43d6-9ccc-b4f661ba7463
  5. the Cambodia Forestry law (2002)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Thomson J, Kanaan R. Conflict timber: Dimensions of the problem in Asia and Africa [J]. 2004.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Reboredo F. Socio-economic, environmental, and governance impacts of illegal logging [J]. Environment Systems and Decisions, 2013, 33(2): 295-304.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 1.Singh S. Borderland practices and narratives: Illegal cross-border logging in northeastern Cambodia [J]. Ethnography, 2014, 15(2): 135-159. .
  9. Le Billon P. The political ecology of transition in Cambodia 1989–1999: war, peace and forest exploitation [J]. Development and change, 2000, 31(4): 785-805.
  10. Southavilay T, Castrén T. Timber trade and wood flow study–Lao PDR[J]. Regional Environmental Technical Assistance, 1999, 5771.
  11. . Transparency International, 2015.
  12. Sasaki N. Carbon emissions due to land-use change and logging in Cambodia: a modeling approach[J]. Journal of forest research, 2006, 11(6): 397-403.
  13. Alliance of Religions and Conservation (2003). Buddhist Faith Statement. Retrieved from
  14. Mulcahy, G., & Boissière, M. (2014). No forest, no NTFPs for rural communities in Cambodia (Vol. 67). CIFOR.
  15. Illegal Logging in Cambodia. Retrieved from
  16. The Cambodia Forestry Outlook Study. 2010.
  17. EUFLEGT. Voluntary Partnership Agreement.