Coverage of environmental issues has broadened from a focus on
rampant illegal logging to an examination of the challenges of balancing economic development with protection of the country’s natural heritage
“The Government commitment to protected areas is unclear at the moment,” a 2007 UNDP report stated in an observation that probably summed up the relationship between Cambodia and its environment over the past 15 years.
A long, mostly depressing saga has been characterized by consistently mixed messages from officialdom as the natural resources of Cambodia have been ruthlessly exploited by private interests, both internal and external.
The story in the last decade and a half has moved from one of illegal loggers eviscerating the country’s forestry, to a more recent phase, where pressure to meet the country’s growing energy needs is to be met largely by hydropower, despite the risk to the nation’s waterways and fisheries.
Illegal logging issues reported by The Cambodia Daily began in 1993, when a Royal decree established a series of protected areas, which covered one sixth of Cambodia’s entire landmass.
That year, the sub-decree was touted as an answer to the period of unchecked logging that had reduced nationwide forest cover from 70 percent to 40 percent in the preceding decade.
In 1995, a total ban on the export of raw logs and sawn timber went into effect. Though good in theory, the reality at the time was that the government had just 625 forest rangers to enforce the law against armed, very dangerous, and extremely well-connected logging operations.
In December that year, Global Witness, an organization that would become the government’s nemesis on the logging issue, blasted the official policy on logging concessions, which the group said were being awarded to foreign companies with little regard for forest management or control.
The following year the government was again on the defensive over a deal to export more than one million cubic meters of “already cut” timber to Thailand. Global Witness described the deal as a cover to cut more trees, bypassing the import and export ban on logs and timber.
The scale of what was at stake on the issue became clear in November 1996, as the International Monetary Fund suspended a $120 million loan package for two years, largely because of corruption in the forestry industry.
The World Bank estimated that Cambodia’s exchequer could be earning $100 million annually from a sound logging policy, but in 1996 the government had collected only $10.7 million.
In 1998, findings from a World Bank-funded consulting team echoed Global Witness’ views and reported that Cambodian forests would be “logged over” within three years. Twenty percent of protected forests were being actively harvested for timber, the consultants found.
Then-Agriculture Minister Tao Seng Huor agreed to a six-point plan of action, including the creation of an independent task force, to combat logging. However, the degree of collusion between officialdom and corrupt companies was consistently revealed in various controversies that followed in the coming years.
One particularly blatant example was in 1999, when RCAF and military police were implicated in the clearing of 200 hectares of Kirirom National Park in Kompong Speu.
In 2000, a Malaysian company was found building a road in the Cardamom Mountain region, which they claimed was in order to conduct a tree inventory.
The Koh Kong Provincial Court later ordered the company to pay $100,000 in compensation to the government. But a year later, the same company was still awarded 60 percent of a logging concession at the core of the Stung Prorum/Phnom Chi lowland evergreen forest, the largest forest of its type in Indochina.
There were some seemingly positive steps in 2001, as Conservation International announced it had a tentative deal with the government to declare more than 300,000 hectares in the central Cardamoms a protected area, which was met with an outcry from firms who hold concessions to log the area. There was also a publicized raid on an illegal logging operation in Pursat where 13 people were arrested.
However, the tendency to shoot the messenger resurfaced the following year, with court cases increasingly being brought against Global Witness, which in another hard-hitting report that year charged that “systematic abuse” of Cambodia’s forests existed within the Department of Forestry and Wildlife and the nation’s judiciary.
In May 2001, a forestry law finally started to materialize as Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered his Cabinet to finalize a draft ahead of a deadline established by the World Bank.
The law charged the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry with enforcing the law, while in protected areas it would work alongside the Environment Ministry. The division of jurisdiction would prove to be problematic, as both ministries played off each other, with criticism that both were avoiding responsibility.
A report by Global Witness in June said that although the government was making some strides in overhauling the forestry sector, reform was still hampered by corruption, ministerial bickering and a general unwillingness to crack down on illegal activity.
In March 2002, then-Global Witness country director Eva Galabru was assaulted near her office. The following January, the group, at a meeting of international donors, was fired by the government as its official forestry monitor.
A year and a half later, the first reports from Societe Generale de Surveillance, the group hired by the government to replace sacked Global Witness came out, demonstrating a markedly softer approach to the issue.
In June of 2005 Global Witness, by then acting independently of the government, re-entered the ring with another explosive report accusing a number of top government officials and their family members of plundering the environment through an illegal logging syndicate.
The government reacted furiously, calling the allegations “groundless, unacceptable rubbish” that was part of a grudge the organization held over its sacking as government monitor in 2002.
As well as their lack of manpower, another problem facing forest rangers was violence.
In September 2005, two rangers were killed by gunmen in Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, the latest in a series of well-organized, deliberate attacks.
In October 2007, another deadly confrontation was reported on in-depth, this time between the authorities and illegal loggers in Pursat.
Aside from the specific logging issue, the means by which areas are designated as being of conservation importance has also been problematic.
In 2006, the Environment Ministry lifted a 12-year ban on mining in protected areas, after which a mining company, which had one of the concessions, declared it had found almost six million tons of chromium, antimony and copper in part of the sanctuary.
Just over a year later, a report commissioned by the UNDP said that efforts to designate a Cambodian wildlife sanctuary as a World Heritage site floundered because the government lacked the necessary political will.
An interview in September 2007 with normally reticent Environment Minister Mok Mareth threw a harsh light on government attitudes.
He said the 32 conservation areas that cover about a quarter of Cambodia’s landmass were not inviolable in terms of mineral exploration.
Riches that would help lift the country out of poverty should not be beyond reach just because they lie underneath the habitats of various rare species of animals, the minister said.
A 2004 report on Stung Chinit river pollution in Kompong Thom province recounted how several families of villagers who ate fish were killed as a result of poisoning by a gold mining operation upstream.
Another report from Ratanakkiri in March 2008 highlighted the large-scale damage done to the landscape by unregulated small-scale gem-mining operations.
Once home to an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, Cambodia has seen its animal life take a huge hit in the past 15 years, due to increased deforestation and rampant poaching.
A 1994 directive that banned the hunting of wildlife for trade was unable to stop even the most open of trafficking. It was also reported that year that the Indo-Chinese tiger, Asian elephant and Sun Bear were in severe danger of extinction. New protected areas were created in Mondolkiri, Koh Kong and Preah Vihear provinces in 2002, but few had management plans or rangers to prevent poachers from carrying out their trade.
The Mekong River’s giant catfish, the largest freshwater fish in the world, was put on the list of critically endangered animals after a population decline for the species of 80 percent in just 13 years.
However, amid the bad news, there were plenty of positive stories, as species previously thought vanished began to resurface.
In March, 2001 rare royal turtles, thought to be extinct for 100 years, resurfaced along the Sre Ambel River in Koh Kong.
The WCS in January 2002 reported the discovery of a rare bat in Preah Vihear previously thought to have only existed in one cave in southwest India.
There was another positive development in February 2007, as eight slender-billed vulture nests were discovered in Stung Treng province. In the same year, a leopard mother and cub were photographed for the first time in Mondolkiri.
In April 2008 it was reported that efforts to preserve the endangered Bengal florican around the Tonle Sap lake were meeting with some success.
A particular concern highlighted by environmental groups toward the end of 2007 was the revival of 13-year-old plans to build four dams in Laos, one in Thailand and one in Kratie across the Mekong mainstream to harness its vast hydropower potential.
It fed into fears for many that neighboring countries would do whatever it took to generate energy, while Cambodia would bear the brunt of the environmental and ecological damage downstream.
Currently, five hydropower dams are also at various stages of planning on the Sesan River, with an expected total power generating capacity of 818 megawatts.
In January, a report on investment by a large number of Chinese companies in the hydropower sector attacked the lack of transparency in the power-planning process.
Plans have also been announced this year to build coal-powered plants in Koh Kong, Sihanoukville and Pailin.
Experts warned that coal-powered plants were not internationally recognized as a clean source of energy, and created serious health and environmental problems.
Pailin Deputy Governor Ich Sarou didn’t allay such fears when he was quoted as saying of the planned coal plants in his area: “They said there was too much pollution in Thailand, so they wanted to do it in Cambodia.”