UPDATED 11:32 a.m. — The U.S. says it is ending aid to government entities under Greening Prey Lang, a project aimed at protecting the sanctuary, as the government silences local communities and civil society partners while “not adequately” prosecuting and putting an end to illegal logging.
In a statement issued Thursday morning by the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. said it had invested more than $100 million in programs in Cambodia aimed at protecting the environment.
“Although Cambodia has made some important strides in environmental protection, the United States has repeatedly expressed concerns about persistent high deforestation rates in protected areas, particularly in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary where USAID has invested significant resources,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, the situation is worsening.”
Since 2016, despite U.S. support for increased patrols, training and management systems, the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary lost about 38,000 hectares of forest, or nearly 9 percent of its forest cover, the U.S. said.
“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. 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,” it said.
The U.S. funding for Greening Prey Lang would be redirected to support civil society, the private sector, and “local efforts to improve livelihoods and expand climate sensitive agriculture.”
“The United States will continue to engage the Cambodia government on climate change and environmental issues of mutual and global concern, including through the Mekong-U.S. Partnership,” it said.
In response, the Environment Ministry said large-scale natural resource crimes in Prey Lang “no longer occur,” and the U.S.’s withdrawal shows the ministry is now “responsible and strong enough” to lead the project.
Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said the ministry respects the decisions of development partners and thanks them for their participation.
“The two sides agreed to turn to other cooperation that continues to serve the best interests of the Cambodian people,” Pheaktra said.
“The Ministry of Environment would like to emphasize that large-scale natural resource crimes in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary and other protected areas no longer occur, but small-scale crimes still occur. This is a small concern that the Ministry of Environment and relevant authorities have been pursuing responsibly,” he said.
Pheaktra added that U.S. ending its involvement in the government’s work in Prey Lang “shows that the Ministry of Environment, on behalf of the Royal Government and its officials, is responsible and strong enough to fulfill its roles and responsibilities on the protection and conservation of natural resources on the basis of the law.”
Authorities banned community patrols of Prey Lang in 2020, and the U.S.’s continued $21-million funding for Greening Prey Lang was criticized by the Prey Lang Community Network this year.
The U.S. announcement comes after Ambassador Patrick Murphy met with Environment Minister Say Sam Al on Wednesday to discuss Prey Lang, and Interior Minister Sar Kheng last week about the prosecution of environmental activists.
Four environmental activists were reportedly further arrested on Wednesday.
Tensions between the U.S. and Cambodia have also been rising over the Ream naval base in Preah Sihanouk province. The U.S. has alleged that Cambodia is moving to station Chinese military assets there, and a tour of the base by a U.S. defense attache last week was cut short as the delegation said it was not granted “full access” to the site.
San Mala, advocacy officer for Cambodian Youth Network, which has been active in Prey Lang, said the Cambodian government preventing communities and environmentalists from protecting the sanctuary had been “unacceptable.”
“About the U.S. cutting funds from Prey Lang, community forestry activists welcome this because the fund really did not provide benefits for the community and forest protectors,” he said.
Updated at 11:32 a.m. with the Environment Ministry’s response.
Clarification: The headline has been amended to better reflect that the funding will not end entirely.