When I arrived in Cambodia in 1993, the country was in the last phases of the struggle against the Khmer Rouge, one of the bloodiest totalitarian movements of the 20th century. By the time I departed four years later, Cambodia had become a focal point for what could be the pivotal battle of the 21st century—the struggle for sustainable development.
Even as the Khmer Rouge movement started to implode, one of the key sources of its funding—uncontrolled logging—was becoming more widespread and increasingly chronic. As political and military factions sought to enrich themselves by felling timber for fast money, new questions arose about whether Cambodia could maintain its remaining forests and nature reserves.
In early 1994 when Sam Rainsy was finance minister, he already was struggling with how Cambodia could tackle the logging problem. During an interview, he told me how timber prospectors from across Southeast Asia were operating deep within Cambodia without permits and, more seriously for Cambodia’s treasury, without paying taxes.
I was surprised to hear about such a large foreign presence after the country had gone through so many years of occupation. So when Sam Rainsy invited me to accompany him by boat with one of his deputies, May Sam Oeun, to Koh Kong province to take stock of the situation, I accepted.
I remember the mouth of the An Dong Tuk as a broad expanse of blindingly silver waters bounded by dark thickets of mangrove. The river eventually narrowed, and we began snaking through the patchwork jungle canopy dappled with endless shades of green. It was a mesmerizing journey.
The first signs of the loggers were mud-scarred hillsides where vehicles had carved dirt paths. There also was charred vegetation and blue plastic sheeting that marked sites cleared for sawmills. Larger and larger piles of felled tree trunks started appearing on the riverbanks.
The first tug boats we saw were the size of fishing trawlers, most crewed by Vietnamese. Eventually we came across two giant 700-horsepower vessels crewed by Indonesians and Malaysians. They were moored near four barges each about 60 meters long and piled 10 meters high with uncut logs.
We spent the night at a milling village, where the local police chief described how the Khmer Rouge was extorting many thousands of dollars every month from the foreign loggers in exchange for letting them operate freely.
At dawn we headed back downriver, and May Sam Oeun gave orders to seize one of the giant tugs, its crew, and some wood. It was during the seizure of a second barge that I heard the crack of automatic weapons fire. As I dove for cover between some logs on the first barge, I caught sight of our attackers darting through the jungle. They wore the telltale green Mao-style caps of the Khmer Rouge.
Our troops returned fire, and for about a minute bullets chipped away at the wood above my head. Then our crew revved the engines of the seized vessel and we began moving down river and out into the bay. The raid had netted several million dollars in logging equipment and felled timber. Happily there had been no injuries.
Of course the uncontrolled timber trade did not just involve the Khmer Rouge and prospectors from neighboring countries. It also has involved high government officials and leading public figures in Phnom Penh and the provinces.
Official complicity in the stripping of Cambodia’s forests became such a serious matter for donors during the mid-1990s that the International Monetary Fund froze tens of millions of dollars in loans. By taking such a firm stance, the IMF seemed to be saying that Cambodia was unworthy of the rest of the world’s time and effort unless it could manage its own abundant natural resources in a sustainable manner.
That may sound callous, even neoimperialistic. But it may be truer now than it was a decade ago. Because of global climate change, preserving forests has taken on a more international dimension.
Researchers have come to recognize forests as a primary mechanism for controlling levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. That is because deforestation and the burning and rotting of wood releases carbon dioxide while leaving forests intact takes carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis. The researchers say emissions could be cut by a fifth if the destruction, mainly of tropical forests, could be halted.
A new global climate treaty expected to come into force in 2012 could allow wealthy countries to pay poor ones to keep their forests intact in return for emissions credits. That could create a lucrative new trade for countries in parts of Southeast Asia.
Perhaps because such a large proportion of the country’s timber already has been felled, or because of better government enforcement, uncontrolled logging in Cambodia may not be on the same scale as during the 1990s. But the practice reportedly continues.
Last year, the environmental group Global Witness accused senior government officials and their families of plundering the environment and participating in a sophisticated illegal logging syndicate. Cambodian government officials have strongly denied the allegations.
Some donors’ priorities have shifted away from forest management in recent years. Cambodia’s progress has been measured more by its level of political stability and willingness to help crack down on terrorism than by its environmental record. The potential to develop oil and gas reserves off the coast also is drawing international interest.
For Cambodians, it may be hard to understand why they should focus on the future economic benefits of preserving forests at a time when skyrocketing food prices make it necessary to maximize available land to grow rice, and when establishing plantations or growing feedstock for biofuels could provide big returns.
Besides, Cambodians would be right to point out that most emissions linked to climate change were not their responsibility.
But there may be more than just the financial trade-offs for Cambodia to consider in playing a role, however modest, in curbing global warming. The higher temperatures associated with climate change could badly diminish the country’s crop yields and erode one of the country’s principal sources of nutrition. If rising sea levels swamp the Mekong delta, then there could be mass migration, raising the specter of renewed regional instability.
Then-King Norodom Sihanouk repeatedly warned a decade ago that uncontrolled logging would turn Cambodia into a desert. It would be one of this century’s great tragedies if climate change helped turn Cambodia once again into a battleground.
(James Kanter was editor-in-chief of The Cambodia Daily from 1995 to 1997. He currently is a staff correspondent with the International Herald Tribune in Paris and writes a monthly column, The Business of Green.)