A drone camera soars over a timber yard where thousands of tons of logs are strewn across the ground. In one clip, a bulldozer scoops up a heap of wood while black smoke billows out of its exhaust pipe. In another, workers load wood onto the back of several truck beds. The wood is not being prepared for sale, but will be used for another purpose: to fuel fires that will keep the electricity running in the large garment factory attached to the timber yard, located about an hour south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Laurie Parsons, a geographer at the University of London’s Royal Holloway, says this particular factory produces clothes for major brands in the U.K., and also provides ironing services for other garment factories. When this factory is at peak capacity, Parsons estimates, it uses hundreds of tons of firewood each day to help keep the fires burning.
Where is this wood coming from? In many cases, it’s being illegally taken from forests, adding pressure to Cambodia’s considerable deforestation issue, according to a recent report published Oct. 13 by Royal Holloway.
In June and July 2021, a team of researchers visited and surveyed hundreds of garment factories in Cambodia that make clothes for companies like Lidl, Gap, and H&M. Out of about 600 factories registered with the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), they found that about one in three were using some forest wood on a regular basis, despite it being illegal to harvest and use forest wood for fires in Cambodia.
“It’s still widely used,” Parsons, the lead author of the new report, tells Mongabay in a video call. “It just demonstrates the scale of the issue.”
Cambodia has experienced one of the highest rates of deforestation of any country in the past several decades. In 1970, Cambodia had an estimated 13.2 million hectares (32.6 million acres) of forest cover, which accounted for more than 73% of the country’s territory. But the expansion of agriculture and industry has led to a dramatic decrease in forest cover, with deforestation accelerating in the last two decades.
Between 2001 and 2019, Cambodia lost an estimated 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) of forest, according to a recent report published by the Land Portal Foundation. This deforestation represents about 26.4% of the forest cover that existed in 2000. Data collected by Global Forest Watch also showed that between 2001 and 2018, the country lost 557,000 hectares (1.38 million acres) of tree cover in protected areas, accounting for an 11.7% loss in these regions. A report published this year by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime notes that some protected areas in Cambodia have become so degraded that “they no longer have much, if any, natural habitat.”
The Royal Holloway report says the Cambodian garment industry’s contribution to deforestation, in combination with its carbon emissions, represents a “substantial concern.” However, the authors say the issue has gotten very little attention, as deforestation in Cambodia is mostly attributed to “land concessions linked to high value wood.”
Cambodian garment factories represented by GMAC are said to burn an average of 562 tons of forest wood every day, the equivalent of 810-1,418 hectares (2,002-3,504 acres) of forest being burned each year, according to the report.
Parsons says these numbers are likely to be an underestimate, since “some of the biggest offenders were most difficult to reach and least likely to cooperate.” For instance, Parsons and his team were not able to get any information from the large garment factory featured in the drone footage.
There is also an accompanying issue of factories burning garment waste — offcuts of fabric left over from the clothes-making process. A report produced by GIZ, the German government’s international development agency, found that some garment factories in Cambodia only produced a few tons of cutting waste each month, while others produced more than 50 ton every month — about half the weight of a blue whale. While some factories may send this waste to landfills, others will use it in their combustion stoves to help generate the factory’s electricity and avoid having to pay for waste disposal.
“It kills two birds with one stone, essentially,” Parsons says. “You have to pay to get rid of the garment waste in the first instance … so you can save that cost, and you can save the cost of kindling.”
The Royal Holloway report provides firsthand accounts of smoky fumes from burning garment waste being emitted from factory chimneys. “Those living in the vicinity of the factories that burn garments for fuel complain of persistent health problems and the need to cover their possessions when prevailing winds draw the fumes to their homes,” the authors write.
While some garment factories use acacia, eucalyptus or rubber wood grown on farms to keep their electricity running, Parsons says many prefer forest wood since it burns more slowly and is therefore more cost-effective.
Large-scale timber felling is actually outlawed under Cambodia’s forestry law, and the government says it is cracking down on illegal activity. But this has just moved logging underground, Parsons says.
“Previously, the garment industry would be essentially fed by a direct linkage between areas of massive deforestation with these huge trucks that would come straight from deforested areas and just deposit large amounts of wood straight at the garment factory door,” he says. “Now it has to happen underneath the radar. So instead, you get local people collecting firewood, under cover of darkness, or simply using small-scale tractors. Then ultimately, that goes to a kind of depository area and then [the wood is] transported by truck to garment factories.”
Local informants and wood sellers interviewed for the Royal Holloway report say firewood is collected in many forested regions, including those around and even inside national parks like Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Cambodia.
Ida Theilade, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, says deforestation related to the garment industry taps into the larger issue of organized illegal trade of timber, which has “detrimental consequences for the local and indigenous peoples living on the lands being devastated by land grabs and deforestation.” This has led to the persecution, arrests and murders of Cambodian environmental defenders, she adds.
“It is the youth and the Indigenous Peoples bearing brunt of the price,” Theilade says in an email to Mongabay. “The garment industry has a responsibility not to fuel these environmental and socially destructive supply chains.”
The report from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime says that “laws, regulations and policies designed to afford protection for Cambodian forests and the local and indigenous people” are being abused. Because of this, illegal logging continues to intensify in Prey Lang, which was designated as a wildlife protective area in 2016.
Hoeun Sopheap of the Prey Lang Community Network, an award-winning group that monitors Prey Lang for illegal activity, confirms that deforestation in Prey Lang “continues to escalate,” and that community members and Indigenous peoples are feeling the impacts as they lose natural resources and the cultural importance of the forest.
“The environment in the world is getting more and more polluted [and] there may be natural disasters such as wind, heat, irregular rain,” Sopheap tells Mongabay in an email.
Deforestation may even be a factor in the ongoing drought in Cambodia, although this connection has not yet been extensively studied. However, the Royal Holloway report says that “local climate narratives unequivocally support this relationship,” and that other studies have linked deforestation to dry-season intensity in parts of the Amazon.
Cambodia has experienced many years of drought, but one of the worst occurred in 2016, when 2.5 million people were affected across the nation due to a lack of water.
The Royal Holloway report says the U.K. plays a significant role in the destruction of Cambodian forests through the garment trade. Parsons says supermarket chain Lidl was found to be the “worst offender,” while other brands such as Tu, C&A, Next, Bestseller, Gap, Levi Strauss, Ralph Lauren, and H&M play a contributing role as well.
“The brands aren’t regulating these things,” Parsons says. “There’s not a regular survey. And so these things completely fly beneath the radar.”
Mongabay reached out to all of the brands listed above, but at the time of publication only received a response from Tu, a clothing brand owned by Sainsbury’s that claims to have high sustainability standards. (Sainsbury’s was also the “principal supermarket partner” of the recent COP26 climate summit held in Glasgow, Scotland.) A representative from Tu said the company doesn’t “currently work” with two of the factories surveyed by Parsons and his team, and said it was “in touch” with a third to “discuss the findings of the report.”
While the Royal Holloway report suggests the garment industry is playing a role in Cambodia’s deforestation, researcher Jean-Christophe Diepart says that role is actually a very small one. Diepart, author of the Land Portal Foundation report, says the garment industry only accounts for 1% of Cambodia’s deforestation. The main driver of deforestation is agricultural expansion, mainly due to economic land concessions granted by the government to agro-industrial groups in Cambodia and abroad, and the expansion of smallholder farms, he says.
“It’s a very important report [because it] focuses attention on issues which have been underdocumented so far,” Diepart tells Mongabay in a phone interview. “But [the garment industry contributes] to a very small aspect of deforestation. [The Royal Holloway report] draws the line and it connects deforestation and the European market without really taking into account the big picture of the problem.”
Theilade agrees that economic land concessions are largely responsible for large-scale deforestation in Cambodia. She adds the international community can help foster change through the implementation of sanctions and the redirection of funds to civil society members working to protect Cambodia’s forests, rather than to government ministries that may be complicit in deforestation.
“In the end,” she says, “it is only public participation and engagement that can save the vanishing forests.”