U.S. ends Cambodia aid programme over deforestation, targeting of activists

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The United States is ending a Cambodian aid programme aimed at protecting one of the country's biggest wildlife sanctuaries, citing worsening deforestation and the silencing of those who speak out about the destruction of natural resources.

The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh said in a statement on Thursday that it had invested more than $100 million to combat deforestation and despite some progress high rates of illegal logging had continued in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.

Since 2016, Prey Lang had "lost approximately 38,000 hectares (93,900 acres) of forest, nearly nine percent of its forest cover," it said, accusing Cambodian authorities of not adequately prosecuting wildlife crimes or putting a stop to 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," the statement said.

In February, authorities detained and later released environmental activists protesting inside the sanctuary.

"As a result of these unresolved concerns, the United States is ending assistance to government entities under the USAID Greening Prey Lang project," the embassy said, adding that aid will instead be redirected to support civil society, private sector and local efforts.

The embassy said it would continue to engage with the Cambodian government on climate change and environmental issues of mutual and global concern, including through the Mekong-U.S. Partnership.

The Cambodian government denied that large-scale illegal logging activities were continuing in the sanctuary and said the ending of the U.S. aid programme showed the country was now capable of protecting the environment on its own.

"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 continue to occur," the ministry's spokesman Neth Pheaktra told Reuters.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Ed Davies)

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