British Ambassador George Edgar on Thursday urged the government to punish forest offenders and cancel commercial logging concessions that have flouted the law.
At a national workshop on forest crime, Edgar commended the efforts so far by the government in cracking down on illegal logging. But he said more needs to be done. “We believe if the system is to be effective, action has to be firm enough to be a deterrent,” Edgar said.
Rather than just confiscating equipment, he said, more offenders must be taken to court. And he said a current Asian Development Bank-funded review of logging concessions must go further than recommendations to renegotiate contracts.
“There is also strong evidence that…concessionaires have also acted in gross violation of Cambodian law,” Edgar said. “We urge the government to go further and cancel the concession contracts of the worst offenders.”
Edgar’s comments came at the “National Workshop on Strengthening Forest Crime Monitoring and Reporting.” The two-day workshop at the Ministry of Agriculture is aimed at training field officials on methods to monitor and report forest crimes.
Britain, Australia, the UNDP and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are supporting the government’s new three-year project. The project calls for government forestry and environmental officials to monitor and track forest crimes, with London-based Global Witness acting as the independent monitor.
Experts say that Cambodia still has an opportunity to manage its forests in an environmentally sound way that would produce great benefits to the economy and national budget. But the International Monetary Fund pulled out of Cambodia in late 1996 largely because of corruption in the logging industry and has just recently re-engaged. Forestry reform remains one of the most important issues donors assess to gauge overall government reform efforts.
Agriculture Minister Chhea Song noted in his remarks at the workshop that the government early last year canceled concession contracts of nine companies totaling an area of nearly 2.2 million hectares. He also reported the government has filed 121 court cases concerning forest crimes. Some 105 are pending.
Edgar referred to an ADB interim report that states every remaining commercial logging operator is in violation of its concession contract. He said the report makes a number of important points, such as that the current system cannot be sustained and aggressive action is needed to change it. But he said the ADB must be even stronger in its recommendations, implying that it also should recommend that the government get rid of the worst concession companies.
Forestry officials spoke early last year of canceling additional concessions pending the ADB review. But lately, forestry officials have backed off that pledge.
In a new report, Global Witness suggests that government reticence to cancel contracts may in part reflect that some forest concession companies are “untouchables” because of their connections to certain officials.
Also at the workshop, Chhea Song reported that the government collected $9.2 million of timber royalties in 1999. That was up from $6 million in 1998, but still far short of the $20 million that the government had forecast.
Patrick Alley, a director of Global Witness, said the revenue collected wasn’t worth the forest destroyed. Global Witness has urged concession activity to be temporarily suspended until the ADB review is complete.