Environmentalists Give Forests Five Years Before They’re Gone

In March, Agriculture Minister Tao Seng Huor agreed with the World Bank to crack down on illegal logging in part by suspending the signing of new timber contracts. 

Right words. But action? Not according to the environmental watchdog Global Witness. A week ago, the London-based group charged that Forestry Director Or Soeurn had been negotiating a swap of logging contracts or so-called concessions in Koh Kong province.

Or Soeurn denied the charge, countering that three logging companies were trying to secretly trade the concessions. “Surprise, surprise that Or Soeurn denies something,” came Global Witness’ e-mail response. “We know for absolute certain that he was involved in negotiations….”

Whichever version is true, the incident is just one small example of why environmentalists and the international community continue to doubt the government’s commitment to forestry reform.

Forest health is rapidly reaching a critical juncture. Cambodia’s forests essentially will be depleted within five years if current harvesting rates are allowed to continue, according to a recently completed World Bank-funded study. The conclusion confirmed earlier findings by Global Witness.

Besides natural resources, millions of dollars of aid money are at stake if the nation’s leaders continue to mismanage forests.

World Bank-funded consultants have recommended sweeping reforms in response: Write a tough, new forestry law that deters illegal loggers, create a force of armed forest rangers, create new concession agreements that bind loggers to sound management.

But the recommendations come at a time when the nation is preoccupied with the scheduled July 26 elections. Even after the elections, nagging questions are almost sure to persist.

Do leaders possess the political will to stop an illegal logging trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars? If they do, would they have the power to stop the military and business fiefdoms that preside over much of the illegal trade?

Or will the studies by the World Bank teams and presented at a forum on May 22 in Phnom Penh just gather dust on some government shelf?

At the forum, First Prime Minister Ung Huot said he agreed with the conclusions and recommendations “100 percent.”

Finance Minister Keat Chhon said that the government has a “serious commitment” to manage forests sustainably and generate “full” revenues to the budget.

And in an interview, Environment Minister Mok Mareth warned that the current situation constitutes a “grave problem. [Without action], we will finish our forests in five years.”

All that talk is good and necessary, say international donors. But privately, they say they are getting tired—tired of years of talk with little action. The consequence of inaction is that the International Monetary Fund suspended a $120 million loan package in late 1996.


Illegal logging has increasingly plagued Cambodia for more than 20 years. But concerns have accelerated in the past several years as more aid and scrutiny came from the international community and NGOs.

Concerns about deforestation at a 1996 international donors meeting in Tokyo prompted the government to form a National Steering Committee to manage forest policy and commission a series of World Bank-funded technical studies.

The technical-assistance teams have spent the better part of the past year studying the problem. Three teams have completed their work, and a fourth is expected to by December.

Technically, the consultant teams worked for the government. As a result, they have been reticent toward the media for fear officials would believe they were working against the government. Unlike Global Witness, they also have been careful not to blame specific individuals or companies for illegal logging.

Nevertheless, the consultants used some strong language in their May 22 report. For example, the group reported that illegal harvesting had in 1997 accelerated “under protection of powerful people and the military” to four times the forests’ sustainable capacity.

The consultant team added: “The prevalence of graft, corruption, extortion and payment” of excessive fees has become part of the forestry culture, “in particular to supplement incomes for local government, public servants, military and powerful individuals.”

The consultants listed several additional causes for the problem: Land grabbing by powerful businessmen and government officials, foraging for wood by local people, encroachment by agriculture plantations and unsustainable agricultural practices such as slash and burn.

(Environmentalists say slash and burn techniques used by the indigenous people of Cambodia could be sustainable if hill tribes weren’t faced with increasing population pressures and land encroachment).

Global Witness has warned that Cambodia’s forests essentially will be turned into sand pits within five years given current destruction.

The World Bank teams didn’t use the sandpit metaphor, but they confirmed the basic findings. Forest cover in Cambodia has dropped from 73 percent to 58 percent since 1969, according to their study.

Such deforestation will lead to chronic shortages of fuelwood, charcoal and building materials. It may force people to relocate in order to survive.

Deforestation also erodes the soil, which helps to conserve water. That will increase the chances of flooding, droughts, poor harvests and pressure on the remaining forest, according to the report. Deforestation also drives wildlife out of its natural habitat.


It is unclear whether the long-term economic argument for slowing tree harvesting is strong enough to spur the government to action.

In November 1996, the International Monetary Fund took the extreme measure of suspending a $120 million loan package largely  because of corruption in the forestry industry.

The consultants’ report says that additional international support could come if Cambodia shows a commitment to cleaning up its act. International aid currently constitutes more than 40 percent of the national budget.

The World Bank-funded consultant teams say that a legal logging industry would create additional forest revenue for the government, improve prospects for long-term political stability, improve investor confidence, and protect the environment.

For example, the government could have collected more than $100 million in revenue based on the estimated 4.3 million cubic meters of wood produced. But the government collected only $12 million because 90 percent of that logging was illegal.

The report suggests that the government might be able to collect that much money from a legal industry.

But Global Witness warns not to expect too much revenue. The environmental group notes that the government would collect about $37.5 million a year based on a conservative, sustainable level of harvesting and a World Bank-recommended tax of $75 per cubic meter. Currently, logging concessionaires pay far less to “rent” the land from the government.

The legal revenue admittedly pales in comparison to the illegal logging revenue.

In the past year alone, illegal logging in northeast Cambodia totaled $200 million, according to Global Witness. The “informal” fees paid from first cut to export pad the wallets of government, military and business officials, both World Bank and Global Witness say.

The government is fond of blaming illegal logging on economics and neighboring countries.

Entero Chey, legal adviser to the Council of Ministers, blamed Cambodia’s exploited forests at a recent forestry forum on “current economic pressures” and strong demand for logs and forest products from Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. International donors say they are tired of that argument.

It’s unclear whether legal concessionaires have a vested interest in reform. Most are foreign companies, with Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia dominating the list. That means they may not have a long-term allegiance to Cambodia.

On the other hand, many of the concessionaires have been unable to log their own land because of armed illegal loggers preventing them from doing so, according to Global Witness and the World Bank teams.

Reform should help that problem, partly through the ranger program. But the alleged concession swap in Koh Kong province illustrates that it might be too late in some cases.

There, Global Witness alleges that three existing concessionaires want to pull out because the high grade timber already has been illegally logged.

Perhaps the most compelling economic argument to conserve the forests is what will happen if Cambodia doesn’t.

“If this continues, Cambodia is going to be an importer, not an exporter [of wood],” said an official at an NGO working with land issues.


The sexiest reform proposal is to create a force of 700 armed rangers to patrol Cambodia’s forests.

The rangers would be part of a Cambodian Forest Action Center, modeled after the Cambodian Mine Action Center.

But Col David Mead, a former Australian defense attache who helped design the program, said that the military must be removed from logging first.

If the rangers have to battle the military, the program is doomed, he said. “This is not designed to confront the military, but to protect the forests,” Mead said. Environment Minister Mok Mareth agrees.

Corruption also is a concern.

“Right now, the Army says, ‘I am the master of the forest,’” said Mok Mareth. “The policeman says, ‘I am the master of the forest.’  The governor says, ‘I am the master of the forest.‘ The illegal logger says, ‘I am the master of the forest,’ If we have a task force [of rangers], some [observers] are really scared they could be the new master of the forest.”

Program supporters hope that can be avoided by properly training and educating rangers, and by paying the rangers well. It remains to be seen, however, if a proposed minimum salary of $160 a month is enough to discourage the rangers from taking bribes.

In any case, the ranger program probably is at least a year away, Mead said.

Donor support will be required. The program, which will include surveillance, intelligence gathering and investigations, is budgeted to cost nearly $30 million over five years. It also will take a while to prepare the training program and order equipment, Mead said.

At the May 22 meeting, US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn called the program “critical” and expressed interest in the US providing technical support and training.

Other proposals to curb illegal logging aren’t as flashy as the armed rangers—but just as important.

The consultants recommend creating a simple new forestry law based on objective standards, and providing penalties stiff enough to deter illegal activity.

“The current forest law is complex, inconsistent and unenforceable,” the authors say. The consultants had a difficult time just obtaining all the various laws, much less analyzing them.

Land allocation is another problem.

Nearly 70 percent of the total land area in Cambodia has been parceled out for forest concessions, protected areas or agriculture, military and fishing concessions.

“But there are few procedures ensuring that such allocation is being done in a rational manner, incorporating social, economic and environmental considerations,” the report stated.

The teams propose more local input and community access to concessions and protected areas.

This is a familiar battlecry among NGOs: Give local people a say. But so far, many voices aren’t unheard.

For example, in Ratanakkiri province, a group of Kreung hill tribe villages still is waiting to hear on a proposal to sustainably manage 4,500 hectares as a community forest.

Most recently, the government asked the tribe, which submitted its original proposal to provincial officials in 1997, to resubmit its application to the Ministry of Agriculture. That also required some additional fieldwork.

Meanwhile, illegal loggers have intruded on land historically occupied by hill tribes.

Late last year, a village elder died shortly after seeing soldiers illegally cutting trees in a nearby “spirit” forest. The villagers claimed the elder died because the spirits were angry at him for not trying to save the trees.

Concession contracts also must be rewritten for the government to get more revenue from private companies allowed to log. The contracts currently are priced at a fraction of the World Bank suggested rent of $75 per cubic meter.

Experts also say there is way too much concessioned land to sustain a commercial industry. Global Witness recommended reducing land under concession from the current 6-plus million hectares to 2.2 million hectares.

Industry officials didn’t participate in the May 22 forum, but the World Bank report gives the timber industry association a role in reform. Global Witness criticizes that recommendation, claiming many members are responsible for the illegal logging problem.             The consultants also found fault with the institutions in Cambodia, and recommended internal reform.

For example, they described the Department of Forestry and Wildlife as plagued by “an unclear forest law, lack of clear lines of authority, too many staff of inadequate training, excessive influence of various interest groups, lack of transparency, low salaries and widespread illegal payment of salary supplements.”

Mok Mareth, in fact, blamed much of the current industry problem on what he called “technicians.” He said he has known Second Prime Minister Hun Sen for 19 years and believes him to care about the forests. But, he said, Hun Sen is the kind of leader who respects the recommendations from his technicians. And those recommendations, such as the design of old concession contracts, have been faulty, he said.

The World Bank team proposes a reorganized department with  a staff trained and built up to more effectively carry out its tasks.

While the teams acknowledge that little is likely to be accomplished before the elections, there are a few simple, if not symbolic, measures that could be done in the meantime, they say.

World Bank officials say that a forestry legislation draft should be withdrawn from the Council of Ministers to show a commitment to start anew.

They also reiterate that no new concessions should be given or existing ones transferred.

But Keat Chhon warned at the forum that it is unrealistic to expect much to be done before the elections. He also noted that the government will need a lot of time to consider the findings and recommendations. But he did say that, where possible, actions would be taken.

Some measures have been taken.

In late May, the two prime ministers issued a nine-point order to stop illegal logging. The order requests military, forestry and provincial officials to take strong action against “anarchic” loggers and demolish illegal sawmills.

And Mok Mareth reported last week that the number of rangers is being increased to protect Bokor National Park, which has been under siege by illegal loggers.

Still, illegal logging continues throughout the country, despite the advancing wet season. Just recently, forestry officials confirmed illegal logging at a wildlife sanctuary and in the forest near the border of Kompong Thom and Preah Vihear provinces.

Many environmentalists have noted that there is still a window of opportunity: Cambodia’s forests are in better shape than many of its neighbors such as Thailand and Vietnam, which have been more heavily deforested.

At the May 22 forum, Paul Matthews, resident representative of the UN Development Program, said that the situation can be reversed if there is political will to do so.

Matthews said he had spent four years in a previous posting in Bhutan. As he flew over Nepal, he said he saw the barren and depleted forest of Nepal on one side of the mountain and the lush forest of Bhutan on the other side. Both countries, he noted, faced pressure from India to export their wood.

The amount of forest cover left in Bhutan, he said, was the result of a deep commitment by the King and the government.

Agriculture Minister Tao Seng Huor, who oversees the forestry department, recently articulated a similar commitment.

“I am optimistic that following the election, the new government will take urgent measures to implement the forestry reform recommendations,” he told reporters at a ceremony marking the protection of the Tonle Sap.

Right words. Now, say international donors and environmentalists, right action is needed.




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