At Long Last, a National Forestry Plan. But Will It Have Fangs?

Barring any major objections from the Council of Ministers, Cambodia will soon have its first ever long-term plan for managing the country’s be­leaguered forests.

In nearly 200 pages, the draft Nat­ional Forest Program sets out the government’s plan for sustainably managing Cambodia’s forests over the next 20 years. Passed by the Ministry of Agriculture in February, it needs only a green light from the Council of Ministers’ legal and economic experts before reaching the premier’s desk for final approval.

But despite the program’s tough words on illegal logging, encroachment and oversight, obser­vers say the government will have to back its threats with actions if the plan is to save a forestry system many consi­der crippled by corruption and the interests of well-connected people.

Jacob Jepsen, deputy head of mission at the Danish International De­vel­opment Agency, which helped bring the plan to life, said he hopes to see it take effect this year.

“Now the government has a long-term work plan which it can present to the donors. It has never had that before,” Mr Jepsen said.

As for the government, he added, “it is easier now for the Forestry Ad­ministration at the national level to tell its people what to do” in the provinces and districts. “We have very clear guidelines now.”

The new national plan replaces an ad-hoc succession of one- to five-year plans. A draft copy of the plan speaks frankly of the old approach’s costs: “Fragmented forest governance has resulted in a lack of transparency and unclear definitions of roles and re­sponsibilities and large areas of forest lands being without sufficient management, leading to conflicts, illegal logging and encroachment/land grabbing.”

The draft also speaks of failing to in­vest even modest forest revenues back into the sector, leaving large tracts of former forest concession un­managed and years of degradation, reducing forest quality.

To deal with admittedly “overwhelming” challenges, the national plan focuses on six areas: demarcation and classification, management and conservation, law enforcement, community forests, capacity building, and financing. A final section covers monitoring and evaluation.

But a plan is only as good as its implementation, said Conservation International’s Country Director Seng Bunra, who joined in on at least two of the half-dozen workshops the government convened during the two-year development of the plan.

“If the implementation is very good…then the plan is very good,” Mr Bunra said.

“This document is very detailed,” he said. “But we need more stronger [enforcement], and we need more transparency as well.”

While conceding some government shortcomings, the draft maintains the official, but widely contested and challenged, claim that forests still cover nearly 60 percent of Cambo­dian territory.

Many organization believe the gov­­ernment has heavily padded the forest coverage figure with ineligible agricultural plantations.

Mr Jepsen, however, downplayed the importance of the forest coverage figure.

“What is important is not to focus on figures so much…. What is important is to focus on what is inside the forests,” he said. “I mean the quality of the forests. Forest cover is not enough; we need to take an inventory of the trees inside those forests.”

Mr Jepsen said the plan’s call for an inventory is a key move if Cambo­dia hopes to profit from international aid schemes that pay countries for saving the greenhouse gases their forests lock up.

Earlier this month, several local NGOs called on the government to postpone granting any more land concessions-widely blamed for Cam­bodia’s continued deforestation-until it reviews the impacts of the ones it has already granted.

Forestry Administration spokes­man Thun Sarath, however, insisted on the need to balance those concerns with the country’s economic needs, a major theme of the plan.

“Before taking the strong measure of concession cancellation, we need to conduct a thorough investigation to prove deforestation because we are encouraging investment from in­ves­tors to develop the country,” he said.

Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri provincial co­ordinator for rights group Adhoc, who has championed efforts to end il­legal logging in the northeast, said concessions have clearly led to deforestation.

Contrary to the country’s own forestry laws, Mr Bonnar said, “we have seen plenty of concessions al­ways granted in the area of dense forest, not sparse forest, which is why deforestation is so massive in the private concessions. Companies just think of profit; they don’t care about the environment and natural re­source protection.”

 

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