The National Assembly Tuesday passed a wider ranging forestry law that stiffens penalties for forest crimes with one- to 10-year prison sentences for violations that range from illegal logging to breeding wild animals in captivity.
Hailed by government officials as progressive legislation to stop the plundering of Cambodia’s forests, the law was strongly criticized by opposition lawmakers and the government’s independent logging watchdog, Global Witness.
Environmentalists said the law fails to protect local people from logging companies, fails to share power among government agencies or instill the transparency needed to stamp out corruption and bribery within the timber industry.
Eighty-three lawmakers voted for the law, while 12 others abstained.
“This law is a new legal tool we will use to control the logging and manage the forest for the sake of the nation and international community,” said Chan Sarun, minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, speaking after the passage of the law.
The 41 days of debate was marked by testy speeches from lawmakers and frequent walkouts staged by the opposition in protest. The walkouts shut down debate when they left the Assembly without a quorum.
Speaking Tuesday, the director of Global Witness said the debate failed to address the law’s shortcomings.
“The draft law didn’t change that much,” said Eva Galabru, “and it didn’t change the fundamental problems that we saw with it prior to the debate starting.
“That would be too much power centralized in the hands of a few people, with no checks and balances, certainly not enough provisions for transparency and poor guarantees that local people will be able continue using the forest as they did in the past,” she said.
Galabru strongly criticized donor institutions, especially the World Bank, for failing to oversee the drafting of the law.
“They’ve played, in my view, a negative role, in particular the World Bank, by endorsing this law without scrutinizing it well enough. My prediction is that this law is going to come back to haunt them.”
The IMF, which in the past has suspended aid to Cambodia for the government’s failure to contain illegal logging, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
An official at the World Bank, however, said the law addresses their concerns.
“We recognize that the law is imperfect, but it does contain many of the elements necessary to improve forest management,” said Steven Schonberger, senior operations officer at the World Bank office in Phnom Penh.
He said the law’s shortcomings should be dealt with in the subsequent subdecrees and regulations that will be required to implement it.
The 18-chapter law requires permission to cut, transport or store timber, though it does allow indigenous people to cut timber and non-timber products for personal use, as long as they are not sold commercially.
The forest crimes described in the law are grouped into three categories and are punishable with prison sentences of up to 10 years, fines of 1 million riel ($256) to 100 million riel ($25,641) and the automatic confiscation of all evidence.
In some cases, the fines are equal to the market value of the evidence collected.
The law also establishes a traditional tree planting day, July 9, to be known as Arbor Day, or Roukhak Ti Vea, and encourages newlyweds to plant two trees before filing for their marriage certificate.
Funcinpec lawmaker Nan Sy said the law was acceptable but predicted that it will be difficult to implement.
“I have noticed we have laws but the government never implements them so well, so that’s why our forests are getting smaller and corruption remains rampant,” he said.
Members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party were more critical, however, saying the law fails to guarantee even basic protections for rural villagers while assuring that businesses and corrupt government officials will continue to profit on the decimation of the country’s forests.
“I have no belief in this law because it will just legalize corruption that bad officials are doing,” said opposition party leader Sam Rainsy.
“It will satisfy the bad officials and businessmen but will strongly hurt the small people who cut trees for survival,” he said.