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Concessions in South-east Asia

Wright - White-shouldered Ibis 3Millions of hectares of natural habitat are being lost to concessions in Cambodia and Laos with little assessment of the impacts to threatened species.

Hugh Wright

Uniform rows of young oil palms stretch off into the distance; a regiment of spiky opponents to anything that now dares cross the landscape. The dry forest that once supported a suite of threatened large waterbirds, vultures and mammals has been erased. While the conversion of forest to plantation is a story heard repeatedly across the tropics, the fact that this plantation has arrived inside an important protected area, and on land valued by locals for grazing their livestock, makes the scene even harder to take in. This site in Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary is now just one of many parts of Cambodia and Laos facing immediate or imminent habitat loss, as land concessions bring a wave of agricultural development to the region.

Covering up to 10,000 ha of land for 99 years, every economic land concession granted by the Cambodian government represents a dramatic change in local land use. State private and state public lands (typically forests) are leased to large Cambodian and Vietnamese companies who grow commodity or energy crops (such as cassava, oil palm, jatropha and sugar cane), fell the natural timber, or simply sell their lease rights to the next land speculator. Similar deals are taking place in Laos although the mechanisms of concession governance are not as transparent.

Wright - plantation - JC Eames

Cropping has not yet commenced in many concessions, but the areas now marked for plantation agriculture are vast, with reportedly 2.6 million ha leased in Cambodia and at least 1.1 million ha in Laos. Furthermore, many individual concessions and concession-holders have far more land than permitted by law (Global Witness 2013). Heavy criticism from local stakeholders and external observers (as well as allegations of human rights violations and corruption) have made concessions a very sensitive political issue, but it also provoked the Cambodian and Laotian governments into issuing moratoriums to curb further designation of new land concessions. Nonetheless, with existing concession plans continuing unabated, agricultural expansion in the next 10-15 years could still determine the fate of the region's threatened birds.

Surprisingly, the likely impact of concessions has rarely been assessed. This is partly due to the uncertain locations and status of concessions, but also due to caution on the part of some conservation organisations working in the region. Good governmental relations are pivotal for working in these countries but exposing and publicising the threat from concessions is somewhat compromised when having to nurture relationships with controversy-wary authorities. Despite the lack of quantitative predictions, the effects of habitat conversion are likely to be severe. For example, an estimated 33-37% of the remaining global population of White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni occurs inside agricultural concessions and this, in combination with proposed infrastructural projects, will push it to the absolute brink of extinction (Wright et al. 2013).

Outright opposition to development is obviously untenable: one quarter to one third of people live in poverty in Cambodia and Laos. Instead, conservation here, and throughout the tropics, faces a challenge to ensure that industrial-scale agriculture is restricted to the areas of lowest conservation value. Maintaining the integrity of protected areas is critical as the rush to claim land continues and chances to protect additional sites decrease. Some government agencies have shown the will and strength to reverse concessions in areas of conservation importance and this should be applauded. Meanwhile, proving that conservation can pay its own way in maintaining protected areas (e.g. through REDD+) will increase political support for their preservation. Negotiating with concessionaires is not often attempted but could be a useful last resort, minimising losses where other approaches have not succeeded.

From a research perspective, there is plenty to be done to aid the conservation cause. Many of the threatened birds in the region are still poorly known and effective action plans cannot be drawn up until these species' requirements are better understood. With recent national and international attention provoking discussion and a little more transparency over concessions, it may finally become more feasible (and politically acceptable) to obtain data and explicitly assess the imminent impacts of concessions on biodiversity. Furthermore, these countries are lacking land-use planning studies that identify optimal locations for competing land uses - information that is critical for decision-makers when reconciling conservation with development projects. Finally, as the problems in South-East Asia are far from unique, understanding what information the authorities require and what approaches are most effective for engaging governments will be valuable for conservation in many low-income countries.


Global Witness 2013. Rubber barons: how Vietnamese companies and international financiers are driving a land grabbing crisis in Cambodia and Laos. Global Witness, London, UK.

Wright, H. L., N. Net, K. Sok, and P. Sum. 2013. White-shouldered ibis Pseudibis davisoni population size and the impending threat of habitat conversion. Forktail 29: in press.

About the author

Hugh Wright is a Council member of the BOU. He has been the recipient of two BOU Small Ornithological Research grants (2009 and 2010) for his work on the White-shouldered Ibis in Cambodia. See ‘Establishing a national monitoring programme for White-shouldered Ibis in Cambodia’, Ibis 152: 206-208.

Blog posts express the views of the individual author(s) and not those of the BOU.

Images: Plantation © Jonathan Eames; White-shouldered Ibis © Hugh Wright


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3 comments on “Concessions in South-east Asia

  1. Avatar Thomas Kuenzel says:

    Hi Hugh,
    Generally I am very much in support about what you wrote ÔÇô the last large forest tracts in SE Asia are in peril, but must be rescued!!!

    Here come some comments of mine.

    We cannot change ÔÇ×from NOW to tomorrow morningÔÇØ the majority of local people (poor farmers, city dwellers, civil servants, staff of armed forces, politicians) we have to deal with in countries like Cambodia. We also cannot change in a fast way the totally corrupt social systems they are living in (and from!!!).

    To build a civil society of strong and independent players in Cambodia and/or to develop a democratic system with a sort of sustained caretaking for a healthy environment needs another 100 years or so.

    On the other hand, the presently ongoing forest destruction takes place with such a speed that the Cambodian forests will be destroyed within another 20 years or so.

    That means we (all people ÔÇô Cambodian and foreigners – interested in the maintenance of those forests ) have to resort to immediate and drastic forest protection activities. Waiting until economic prosperity and proper democracy will allow for healthy ecosystems is not a solution. The grave situation of forests in Cambodia (and whole former Indochina) needs sort of ÔÇ£first aideÔÇØ activities for the forest NOW.

    What therefore must be immediately implemented are on-the-ground Forest Ranger based forest protection activities. This cannot be expected from the Government ÔÇô but it can be expected from the international conservation orgs operating in Cambodia as, e.g., IUCN, WWF, BirdLife International, WCS, etc.

    Said in a provocative manner: For the time being those international conservation orgs are not much more than RECORDERS of the environmental disasters (WWF and WCS might be somehow of an exception).

    What do they have to do?
    1) They must turn themself into orgs for which practical on-the-ground forest protection through Forest Rangers has PRIORITY.
    2) They must make consequent use of the existing environmental laws in their practical actions and in legal actions. To be prepared to do the latter they must set-up a national body of legal experts (LAWYERS) financially supported by all international orgs operating in Cambodia, and which body is continuously filing and pushing through cases against any entity (person or organization) which is in conflict with the environmental laws of Cambodia.
    3) They must make public in Cambodian News Papers and radio and TV stations what they know about logging.
    4) They must support local forest protection movements. Unfortunately, for the time being the international orgs in Cambodia regard such as forbidden intervention into Cambodian policy what is a grave mistake.

    I am discussing/suggesting this since some time.
    The most powerful obstacle which presently stands against such a change in the policy of those international orgs is not the Cambodian Government ÔÇô it is the staff (and leaders) of the international conservation orgs.
    They are not prepared and/or not willing to take on the admittedly dangerous job to act against the LOGGING MAFIA, and the leaders/BODs of those international orgs do not want to run into conflicts where their organization could end up to be kicked out from Cambodia ÔÇô which, again said in a provocative way, would not be of great additional harm for the environment since they are not full-heartedly doing what they are there for.

    The international orgs (and their staff) have arranged themself into a situation where they are allowed to play there ÔÇ£conservation gamesÔÇØ as long as they are not getting in the way of the illegal and legal loggers. They enjoy whatever they are doing until the forests are gone, and they are no more needed.

    They are full-time engaged in many ÔÇ£VERY IMPORTANT ACTIVITIESÔÇØ as ornithology, mammalogy, wildlife photography, community tasks, CONFERENCES, travelling (e.g. to visit S-African wildlife resorts for ÔÇ£LEARNINGÔÇØ what can be done with wildlife and their habitats!!!), and in many other second or third important or not at all important environmental activities, and of course not to forget are reporting lengthy in journals like ÔÇ£BABBLERÔÇØ with indignation the bad things happen in Cambodia ÔÇô but do not act by themself to protect the forests in Cambodia as they could do.
    By doing as described above they themself have the foolish feeling that they are helping to rescue the environment/forests in Cambodia. They do not see themself as ÔÇ£stirrup holderÔÇØ and as having accepted to function as ÔÇ£shamefaced concealment/fig-leafÔÇØ for the loggers (leading Cambodian elite) what indeed they are.

    In my eyes they are misusing/burning in large scale the money of their orgs / donors and/or misinforming (intentionally or not) donors about the importance of their environmental activities.

    I am also not hesitating to suggest here that the international conservation orgs active in Cambodia have to reduce the ÔÇ£salariesÔÇØ they are paying for leading staff and especially for consultants. Those salaries must be adapted to the extremely low living costs in Cambodia, but not to the very high living costs in western countries. For orgs which always request good governance it would be necessary to go ahead with a good example and to make public their salary scheme, so that it can be discussed in a proper way. It must be understood that all those international conservation orgs are NGOs which have to fulfill their mandate ÔÇô to serve the people, not first of all their own staff.

    So, what the international conservation orgs active in Cambodia have to do to become real FORREST PROTECTORS is to change not only their policy, but also to find women and men (Cambodian and foreigners) who are willing to fight against the LOGGING MAFIA.

    Last notes:

    – My apologies to all who are working good-heartedly and well-minded for the environment inside the orgs I criticized. But, you have to admit when going through the country then you see the forest burning or being chain-sawed everywhere or already turned into mono-species-plantations.

    – Research: The situation of the forests in nearly all so-called developing countries around the world is so grave that it does not need any more good arguments from the scientific site to justify the outcry and the immediate actions for forest protection. Research is very much needed, and more arguments for forest maintenance are always welcome ÔÇô but what we need immediately NOW are on-the-ground Forest Ranger based activities against the illegal loggers in the forests.

    – Species protection: Already some decades ago there was a paradigm-shift in the world of nature conservation from Species-Protection forward to Habitat-Protection. With regard to the forest we know already that the animal-compartment of the forestÔÇÖs complex overall biodiversity cannot be maintained sustainably without the forestÔÇÖs plant-compartment. In other words, and for the hard-headed : Forest wildlife cannot be maintained without trees / species cannot be maintained without their habitat.

    – Carbon-Offset Projects: Is not the key to forest protection in Cambodia. Payments flowing into the pockets of the leading Cambodian elite resulting from concession busyness is much higher than any money which could come from Carbon-Offset Projects. There are latest info available in internet ÔÇô I do not have the time now to bring the details here.

    – The Cambodian Governments target to maintain a forest cover of the country of 50% (or so)
    is totally unreliable for a country which does not have much more income sources for their people than agricultural activities. This target should be reduced to say 25%. The international conservation orgs should see it as one of their tasks to prepare now info/documents showing the Cambodian Governments which of the still existing forests MUST be maintained. This would mean that out of all forested areas a selection of the most important forest tracts has to done in such a way that 1) large forest tracts will be maintained and b) corridors connection otherwise isolated forests will be maintained.

    – I am prepared to survive the storm to come.

    More power to the forest guards and with my best regards, Thomas

  2. Avatar Hugh Wright says:

    Thank you for your comments Thomas. To add/respond to just a few of your points:

    I agree there is a mismatch in the time it will take to build an environmentally-conscious civil society and the urgent need to protect forests and other habitats. The approach must be to protect habitats as best we can, while at the same time developing popular interest and mechanisms for the public to act on these issues.

    Guarding forests and other habitats to maintain their integrity must be done with the consent and cooperation of the communities already living in these or in neighbouring areas. It will obviously be counterproductive to heavily or even slightly restrict the activities of these people, and fortress-style protection is likely to result in the same level of hostility against park guards as that directed at the bulldozers driving in land concessions. I expect the guarding that you recommend will best serve to stop newcomers from other areas from settling. However, conservation NGOs are very limited in their ability to employ guards because only government-employed rangers have the status with which to uphold the law.

    A legal body to enforce environmental law would be groundbreaking, but this could only be achieved with full government participation as it will be politically unacceptable for international NGOs to take the lead role in enforcing national laws. Furthermore, when land-use decisions contradicting environmental legislation come right from the top of government I expect lawyers would still be rather powerless to intervene. Improving the standards and enforcement of environmental impact mitigation and building the capacity of the national justice system to handle environmental cases would no doubt be valuable though.

    The illegal logging community is a concern, but most of these logging activities remove only the most valuable timber ÔÇô a lot of which is already long gone in many sites. I feel that national and international concessionaires are now a greater threat as clearance for concessions (which of course does initially include logging) is becoming widespread and leads to the near-complete removal of native habitat. Whatever the main threat though, I agree with you that the Cambodian governmentsÔÇÖ target to maintain 60% forest cover is very ambitious and somewhat at odds with their aims for economic development.
    While actions on the ground are definitely a top priority, research is addressing far more than just the arguments to support the course of action. For example, better data and tools to assist with land-use policy is simply essential if governments are going to balance economic developments with biodiversity conservation.
    Finally I think there is a risk of tarnishing the entire international NGO community with the same brush here. While there is certainly much room for improvement, the NGO community adopts a diverse range of approaches and while some organisations work very effectively through strong working relationships with the government, others are taking a very strong line on illegal activities and malpractice. Hopefully these different approaches can be translated into Cambodian civil society in the not too distant future.

    Best wishes


  3. Avatar Thomas Kuenzel says:

    In my last contribution I made the following statement:

    “Carbon-Offset Projects: Is not the key to forest protection in Cambodia. Payments flowing into the pockets of the leading Cambodian elite resulting from concession business is much higher than any money which could come from Carbon-Offset Projects. There are latest info available in internet ÔÇô I do not have the time now to bring the details here”.

    In this context I stumbled today over the following text in internet:
    If government policy is behind the majority of deforestation, it is hard to see how cash payments through REDD would bring change. In Indonesia, the government-sponsored palm-oil industry generated more than $12 billion in government revenues alone in 2010 ÔÇô much more than the $1 billion offered by Norway to establish REDD. Even if the carbon market works, REDD cannot compete. ÔÇö Andy White, Rights and Resources Initiative, March 2011.”

    I would like to hear from some other REDD experts what their “unbiased” opinion is with regard to Cambodia. Thanks, Thomas

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