The rainforests of Ratanakiri province have nearly disappeared. What little remains clings to low, rocky knolls dotting the countryside, the last vestiges of a once impenetrable jungle. Across the lowlands, what had originally been dripping understory shaded by lofty hardwoods and gnarled banyan trees now appears almost savannah-like, its monotony broken only by the occasional dipterocarp trunk thrust up from the plain. Here, in Ratanakiri, the jungle was cleared by timber harvesters, most of them employed by the government. The vacated acreage became farmland—cassava, cashew and rubber tree plantations sprung up after the logs were hewn and hauled away. Here, as in so many third-world backwaters around the globe, forests simply cannot be seen for the trees—trees that yield precious board feet, and whose absence allows for unchecked slash-and-burn agriculture. All this plundering begs the obvious question: What happens when the trees are gone, and the soil is sere and depleted?
As far as Cambodia’s province-by-province deforestation goes, Ratanakiri simply ranks the country’s most recent setting for rampant divestment. In the last 40 years, Cambodia’s primary rainforest cover has plummeted from around 70 percent in 1970 to a paltry 3.1 percent today. Illegal loggers took the lion’s share, but government-sanctioned clear-cutting, coupled with steady population growth, round out the hefty bill. After Vietnam and Nigeria, Cambodia lays claim to the third-worst deforestation rate in the world.
Ratanakiri in the dry season is a dusty, desiccated place. Deciduous trees have long since dropped their leaves, and everything along the roads is coated with the fine, vermillion earth of this region. On the knobby hills I spot desultory patches of jungle; everywhere else is either plantation, village or scrubby grassland. Here and there we pass fields of smoldering underbrush, wholly unsupervised—slash-and-burn at its finest. Less than a decade ago, this entire area used to be virgin rainforest, our driver informs us, miles and miles of it on either side of the road. Now the forests are gone and the farmers have moved in to harrow. At length we approach an enormous walled-in compound, its concrete barricade nearly ten feet tall and topped with barbed wire—the derelict lumber mill. Turns out that once all the trees were felled, the workers ran out of things to do, and the mill subsequently shut down. In a quaintly ironic twist, the trees and shrubs behind the walls, trafficked in by Mother Nature, have grown to mammoth proportions—a root-by-root repossession of the land. But looking around the mill, seeing the dearth of forest and the ever-encroaching villages nearby, it’s apparent this effort is futile.
To be sure, Cambodia’s people have seen their fair share of hardship. A devastating civil war and genocide, carried out from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, left millions dead and scarred millions more. Government corruption and abject poverty still abound. Add to this the spread of HIV and AIDS, which may prove to be the latest pandemic in a country already stricken with disease. This litany of grievances would be incomplete, however, without mention of the rainforest. The people are suffering, and they’re taking it out on the land—by cutting, burning, mining, poaching, littering, polluting—until every last cent is squeezed from the soil and the waters run thick with their refuse. Cambodia is squandering its natural beauty, and to what end? I can’t bear to watch; I am ashamed; I feel powerless to stop it.
It can be a very sad world, sometimes.