In Search of Forest: How Cambodia’s Protected “Flooded Forests” All but Disappeared

Long Sokha was technically farming in a flooded forest, but there was no hint of that on a recent, sun-soaked afternoon.

The fields of the plot in Kampong Leng district of Kampong Chhnang province looked neat and orderly, planted with rows of rice plants soaking in the paddy. The roughly 2,000 hectare stretch, not far from the Tonle Sap lake, was bare of any substantial trees, and though parts of the area appeared to be uncultivated wetlands, the area mostly looked like any other productive agricultural area in Cambodia. There was only one issue with that — none of these farms were supposed to exist.

The land Sokha farmed is part of a protected state-managed area bordering the Tonle Sap, the great lake of Cambodia that stands as a critical hub for both biodiversity and commercial fishing. In December, Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a campaign to reclaim protected lakeside areas such as those rented by Sokha, calling for all flooded forestlands to be handed back over to the state.

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Andrew Haffner and Mao Sreypich