At Think Biotech, reforestation starts every morning to the buzz of chainsaws. Workers feed logs into the company’s sawmill, while excavators dump loads of timber into the surrounding lumberyard, which stretches for hundreds of metres.
Behind the lumberyard the most mature acacia trees, already several metres high, overshadow the nearby newer saplings.
Beyond lies an ash-covered expanse of land, littered with uprooted trees and piled-up hewn timber. Looming behind and between are the remnants of the tall, natural forest, vulnerable and exposed.
But Think Biotech’s concession isn’t an economic land concession (ELC). It’s a joint large-scale reforestation project with the government, which granted it 34,000 hectares – over three times the limit for ELCs – between the Mekong River and Prey Lang forest, stretching from Kratie province to neighbouring Stung Treng.
The company has labelled the project “sustainable” and “eco-environmental”.
On an afternoon in June 2012, rice farmer Sam Nou watched a ferry deliver bulldozers and excavators across the Mekong to his remote village in Kratie’s Kampong Cham commune.
“I thought they’d come to build a road for our community,” Nou, a member of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), recalled last week outside his wooden-stilted home.
“But it was not like that . . . They started clearing near the bank almost immediately to build an acacia nursery.”
In the name of reforestation, Think Biotech, a subsidiary of weapons and explosives manufacturer Hanwha Corporation, one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, has cleared and logged vast tracts of timberland on the edge of Prey Lang forest since its arrival.
The company replants primarily acacia trees, though it says up to 10 species will eventually be cultivated.
Think Biotech plans to convert the land into a plantation, with 15 2,000-hectare plots capable of generating 600,000 cubic metres of industrial timber for annual sale, returns from which will be split between the company and the government.
After watching trucks haul timber from the site for more than three years, villagers who have lived around the forest for generations – some of whom have been involved in land-grabbing disputes against the firm – find it hard to see how Think Biotech’s motives differ from the logging companies who came before.
“It is a contradiction. Their real activity is destroying, not reforestation – it’s logging and destroying Cambodia’s natural resources,” said villager and PLCN member Chan Pak, 65.
“I am afraid there will be no more forest for the next generation.”
What is a forest?
Between 2001 and 2014, Cambodia experienced the fastest deforestation rate in the world, according to Global Forest Watch data.
The deforestation occurred disproportionately within Cambodia’s more than 2 million hectares of ELCs, according to a paper published last year in the science journal Nature.
Satellite data show that total forest cover in Cambodia has fallen from 72 per cent in 1973 to 48 per cent in 2014, according to research by Open Development Cambodia. Only 16.5 per cent of that is dense forest.
But the government maintains that forest cover is actually increasing, and now sits at about 57 per cent – close to a 60 per cent target for 2030, figures it submitted to 2015 Paris Climate Conference.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries counts the increasing number of private plantations in ELCs – often filled with rubber and acacia trees – as “forest cover”. So does the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
As such, the ministry proclaimed in 2014 that despite ongoing logging, more than 100,000 hectares of forest cover had been added since 2008.
But projects like Think Biotech, says ecological economist Arnim Scheidel, are not reforesting. They are converting diverse landscapes into monoculture economic forests, where benefits flow primarily to the owners, rather than to locals, whose livelihoods, which depend on the land, are often destroyed.
In a paper published this month, Scheidel and Cambodia-based anthropologist Courtney Work argue the project fits into a trend in which green initiatives of questionable environmental and social impact are established in developing countries in the name of countering climate change.
They are often registered as Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM), an international framework for carbon-reducing projects set up under the Kyoto Protocol that enables the sale of carbon credits.
“One of the drivers of these types of projects is this climate-change crisis discourse,” said Scheidel, in a recent interview.
“These discourses have been mobilised to get a large amount of land.”
“Solutions that were unpopular become normal again. You need immediate solutions and . . . you don’t look at the impacts,” he said.
While Think Biotech has not registered as a CDM, government sub-decrees describing and approving the “sustainable” project signed in December 2010 cite its potential to become one.
The company will “[convert] degraded forest into land full of timber resources”, the sub-decree states.
Further, its work will put an end to forest clearance, slash-and-burn activities and illegal logging, and stop – or at least reduce – soil erosion, the sub-decree continues.
The documents also say that the plantation will conserve biodiversity and involve local stakeholders, enhance technical knowledge and provide jobs in the community.
Cheng Kimsun, head of the Forestry Administration, did not respond to a request to discuss the project or say whether or not it will be registered as a CDM.
Sum Thy, director of the Environment Ministry’s climate change department, said the current low price of carbon meant it would probably not.
Environmental expert Dr Alan Ziegler says though it’s “plausible” that a monoculture plantation could match or surpass a natural forest in carbon storage, it would be nearly impossible to estimate without a huge investment in time and destructive sampling.
“Likely in the end, the increase, if any, would not be large,” Ziegler, a professor at the University of Singapore, said via email.
Furthermore, he added that any increase would not be large enough to outweigh losses: of biodiversity, soil and nutrients, changes in hydrology – and of livelihoods.
On top of the ecological damage, Work and Scheidel argue that the vast tracts of land required to turn a profit from tree plantations are usually already occupied, farmed or forested, sparking conflict between companies and villagers.
In developing countries like Cambodia, corruption and weak institutions make monitoring difficult and meaningful consultation with those affected by such projects rare, they argue.
In Think Biotech’s case, Work and Scheidel, researchers for the International Institute of Social Studies, emphasise the lack of community consultation and studies assessing the current land use against future alternatives.
They concluded that the project provides no evidence of environmental benefits, while decimating vast swathes of previously rich forest.
And then there’s the timber, a chance to recoup some of the huge investment required to fund plantations, they say.
“If you want to cover start-up costs, either get a good loan or a good forest,” said Scheidel.
Think Biotech currently employs about 1,000 people at the site, though the number fluctuates.
Those doing chainsaw work, wood gathering and planting earn $154 a month, according to Khai Vanda, 26, a former employee and the son of community representative Sam Nou. Working at the sawmill yields $180.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity via telephone, a 27-year-old current employee estimated the company fells between 150 to 200 trees per day.
He said the timber, some of it high-grade wood, was taken to the Tbong Khmum facility for steaming – a common procedure in furniture making – two or three times a week.
The employee also accused the company of illegally logging within Prey Lang forest.
But in an interview last week, Seo Kyung Youl, managing director and chief executive officer of Think Biotech, rejected the persistent “rumours” that the company cut anything outside its own site, saying illegal loggers used their roads to enter the forest.
“We can’t control [the illegal logging] . . . we just want to control our own contract and transport,” Seo said. “We are doing everything legally.”
He said the company sold 4,000 cubic metres of timber last year, locally and to South Korea and China. Only about 10 per cent of the wood at the site was first-grade, he said.
The company made about $700,000 in revenue on an investment of more than $7 million in 2015, he added.
Founded in 1952 as Korea Explosives, Hanwha Corporation has grown into South Korea’s seventh-largest chaebol, or family-owned conglomerate.
The biggest are Samsung, Hyundai and LG.Its interests around the globe include mines, auto parts, chemical plants, solar power and shipping, though a major component of its business centres on weapons: from ammunition and grenades to guided missile systems and unmanned drones.
Speaking at Think Biotech’s Tuol Kork headquarters, Seo and director Chung Hwanki, said that the company set up the project in 2011, following a 2008 MoU signed between Cambodia and the South Korean government to attract investment in reforestation.
Like the government, they argued that the tree plantation will increase forest cover.
The company will harvest one plot each year after about 15 years of growth, in what they called a “sustainable rotational system”. This will take the pressure for timber resources off of protected areas, they said.
Chung said an assessment of the site – logged by two companies previously under now-scrapped logging concessions – found the average forest cover was low, at just 30 to 40 cubic metres of timber per hectare.
Although, Scheidel counters that satellite data suggests dense tree cover across much of the site, particularly in the yet-to-be-cleared north.
“After we plant the trees, we change it to about 300 to 400 cubic metres [per hectare] of forest cover, around 10 times more,” said Chung, who also stressed community forests within the concession were being protected.
“The company and the government have to develop that area to make some profit, [and] human beings have to use wood, but how can that be supplied in an environmentally friendly way?
“That’s our approach in our area . . . to plant trees in an environmentally friendly way.
“Of course, we also accept that, in terms of biodiversity, even if we plant even 10 species, there will be less than the many kinds that were there before . . . but we can supply timber to the Cambodian market, more than 400,000 cubic metres. If we supply that, people can use this wood from plantation trees [and not] the natural trees.”
Srei Srim, 34, looks out from his family’s basic wooden house onto his small scrubby plot, hemmed in by the concession on all sides.
“Before, I could hunt for wildlife around, but after they came, it’s done; I could not hunt anymore,” he says.
“We used to catch fish, turtles and monitors, but with the fish – no more. They filled in the pond.”
A few hundred villagers have staged protests, while the community has submitted three petitions to the state and NGOs, demanding a return of land they used for rice farming and forest containing their resin trees, an essential income source for many.
Standing next to a resin tree like one of the 500 he taps around the site, Kong Socheat, 31, said he was concerned.
“The trees are my livelihood,” he said. “I’m afraid . . . the company will probably cut it this year”.
Late last year, the NGO Forum took up the villagers’ case.
Since then the company has given back 2,000 hectares around people’s homes via a demarcation process, though anxiety remains about the decision’s permanence.
Not all villagers are upset, however.
Suong Horm, chief of Achen village in Kampong Cham commune, defended the plantation, which he said brought jobs.
He said that claims of 100 affected families had been settled, with land swaps arranged for 10 families and compensation provided for resin trees.
Kratie Deputy Provincial Governor Var Thorn also dismissed criticism of the project, which had also planted rosewood and teak trees, he noted.
“The granted land is not Prey Lang,” Var said.
“It is just useless forest with trees the size of wrists and ankles. [They] clear the dead forest. The government does not allow it to clear actual forest.”
Think Biotech did not at first undertake an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for their project, but started one in 2015, after the Environment Ministry changed its policy.
Without a proper study of the baseline – what would have been if the plantation was not built – and the alternatives, there can be no argument that people or the environment are better off, said Scheidel, the researcher.
“Even if some areas are degraded, supporting community patrols would provide a much better forest in 10 years,” he said.
Nou last week led reporters to the western boundary marker of Think Biotech’s concession, which marks the beginning of Prey Lang forest.
Nearby, dozens of resin trees, oozing the black substance, dot a dried up riverbank, under a canopy of leaves that keeps the ground cool and shady all year round.
Much of the now-cleared landscape was once like this, Nou said. “How can you decimate a forest for money?” he asked.
“Money is printable, but a forest isn’t.”