An environmental watchdog claimed Thursday that an Asian Development Bank-funded review of commercial logging operations threatens to stall forestry reform in Cambodia.
Patrick Alley, a director of London-based Global Witness, maintained the $900,000 review is failing in a critical mission to identify concession companies that should be ejected for repeated and serious violations including violence, buying timber from the military and illegal log exports.
“There isn’t enough forest left in the country to maintain [the current] 21 concessions,” Alley added at a press conference.
“There is still a chance here to make this review strong and effective…But if it doesn’t happen, then I think the forestry-policy reform process will be put back by several years by keeping those companies in charge of those areas.”
Logging concessions cover wide swaths in the forests.
Most of the agreements were signed in secret between timber operators and high government officials during the past several years. Along with the military, these concessionaires have been described by Global Witness as the players most responsible for the deforestation in Cambodia.
Orhan Baykal, the concession review team leader, on Thursday countered that legal consultants have found the government could get sued if it cancels concession agreements unilaterally.
Alley noted however that 12 concessions were canceled earlier this year, as well as in the past. “The government has shown itself perfectly capable of unilaterally terminating concessions.”
Chea Sam Ang, deputy director of the forestry department, said Thursday in an interview that it’s too early to say whether additional concession contracts will be canceled.
“Let’s wait and see the result of the contract review,” he said. “Before 1999, the thing was too complicated and we could not put blame upon anyone solely.” But Chea Sam Ang indicated that if a concession area has been violated beyond repair then it should be canceled.
In a report issued Thursday, Alley identified 12 concession companies that have seriously violated their contracts. At the very least, he said, five of those contracts should be terminated.
The ADB team argued earlier this week that finding the exact culprits would take too much time and be difficult to determine.
But Alley said Thursday the team can tap into investigative work that already has been done by Global Witness, World Bank-funded consultants and even the government. He said that if bad concessionaires are allowed to get off the hook, it would only extend the culture of impunity in Cambodia. And the “government is likely to say the review wasn’t so bad,” Alley added.
Overall, Alley charged that the concession review has been “crippled” by lack of time, money and poor design.
He noted that site inspections are being carried out in the wet season, that inspectors typically spend only one day in each concession and that only areas where cutting is permitted in 1999 and 2000 have been examined. Because of the long rainy season, no harvesting or wood-transport operations have been observed. Only 10 concessionaires have been visited so far.
The ADB team itself has acknowledged many of those shortcomings, and Baykal said this week the review would be extended into February so reviewers also can observe dry-season logging.
While this will help, Alley said the review still will be inadequate. He noted that an ADB forestry management consultant himself acknowledged this week that at least four to six months of solid work would be needed.
Baykal also reiterated comments made earlier that his objective is to help correct the system, not dwell on the past.
Global Witness, the ADB team and the government agree that the system needs to be overhauled or most concessions will be logged out within five years.
In an interview earlier this week, Baykal called on strengthening laws, government institutions, transparency and forest-management practices. He said conservative, allowable harvesting levels also must be set.
If those things are accomplished, bad concessionaires likely would leave Cambodia on their own, he said. (Additional reporting by Van Roeun)
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