The government should cancel three forest concessions that have been almost completely harvested and place at least eight other “seriously depleted” concessions under a moratorium until new management plans are prepared, an Asian Development Bank-funded team recommended Monday.
Fraser Thomas, a consulting firm hired by ADB to conduct a review of Cambodia’s often-criticized forestry concession system, also said the government should require all concession companies to renegotiate new agreements since current management plans are completely inadequate.
The draft report, which was released on Monday to government officials, donors, concessionaires and others detailed a commercial timber industry virtually devoid of long-term planning.
Orhan Baykal, the ADB project’s team leader, said no concessionaires carried out credible inventories, none had tree cultivation plans and only two employed professional foresters. Many plans called for the richest forests to be cut first, “indicating that whoever prepared the plan didn’t have any intention to sustain” the area over the long term.
Yet the report stopped short of saying who was to blame for rampant illegal logging of the past.
“When the house is on fire, the first job we believe should be to put the fire [out] and save the house,” Baykal said.
The ADB-funded concession review is deemed a critical piece in Cambodia’s forestry reform. Twenty concession companies have contracts covering a total of 4.6 million hectares of land, or nearly half of the estimated 10.5 million hectares of forestland in Cambodia.
In 1998, World Bank-funded consultants concluded that Cambodia’s commercially-valuable timber would be depleted within five years if existing harvesting rates were allowed to continue.
The ADB review comes as donors and the government are preparing for the critical Consultative Group meeting in Paris in May to finalize an aid package.
It was unclear Monday whether the government will follow the ADB team’s recommendations, and whether the recommendations, if adopted, would be enough to appease watchdogs, NGOs and donors who have been advocating tough action against the timber industry’s worst violators.
Several groups said Monday that they wanted time to digest the report before commenting. A workshop has been scheduled for April 20-21 to debate the report’s content.
Forestry Director Ty Sokhun would not commit the government to a position, saying only “some [recommendations] presented were good.” In an opening speech earlier in the day, he pledged that the government would remain vigilant in its crackdown on illegal logging.
In early 1999, the government canceled forest concessions covering more than 2 million hectares following pressure from donor countries.
Baykal in December said that the team’s legal experts had warned that there would be legal risk to canceling agreements. But he said Monday the team concluded the government could act more toughly to protect its primary objective of sustainability, due to the extremely poor management of the concessionaires.
Henry Kong, chairman of the Cambodia Timber Industry Association and forest operations manager for SL International Ltd (Samling), agreed that concession areas have been depleted.
“I think that’s true of most of the concessions,” Kong said after the meeting. But he blamed the high-level of harvesting on loggers who have trespassed on concessionnaire property.
The ADB team showed slides to illustrate some forestry practices it found during its field work. One slide showed trees that had been cut too close to a stream, showing no respect for possible environmental consequences, Baykal said. Another showed that a tree marked by the forestry department to be retained as a “mother tree” for future generations had been cut to its stump.
Baykal also showed aerial photographs that still showed a lush forest canopy in Cambodia.
“This is only to show that you still have beautiful forests and it deserves good management,” he said. The forests currently are commercially depleted, not deforested, and if put under proper management, he said, they could still produce in perpetuity.
Baykal said there has been more discipline within concession areas since the government crackdown began in early 1999. But while that’s encouraging, it does not address fundamental measures needed to establish a sustainable system, he said.
The April workshop to debate the content of the report will be moderated by a panel of four international experts, Baykal said, including an expert appointed by World Wide Fund for Nature.
For example, Baykal also said that when timber license agreements were signed by the Council of Ministers, no agency was designated to implement the agreements. This, he said, needs to be rectified as soon as possible
The government requested ADB’s assistance to conduct a review of the country’s concession areas. Field trips to the concession areas starting in late October 1999 were hampered by a late monsoon season. The field work was extended four weeks, then two additional weeks, Baykal said.