Environmentalists See Concession Review as Lost Opportunity

An Asian Development Bank-funded review of Cambodia’s commercial logging areas is being sharply criticized by environmentalists as squandering an opportunity to root out the country’s worst timber operators.

But the ADB team defended its work this week, saying that it is here to try to improve the system, not take culprits to court, and that it would be too difficult to prove exactly who is to blame for the past ravaging of Cambodia’s forests.

The controversy reflects, in part, the different agendas that the two groups bring to the table. But on this the two sides agree: The current concession-management system is in shambles.

“The system is not sustainable,” Orhan Baykal, team leader for the ADB project and a veteran forester, said Thursday. “Our objective is to correct the system.”

In fact, discussions with the ADB team members and environmentalists revealed that none of the 10 concession areas examined so far have “environmentally sustainable” forest-management plans or good logging practices.

And reflecting the anarchy that still exists in the forests and the difficulty of reforming the sector, heavily-armed guards—sometimes as many as 30 to 80—have had to accompany the ADB team into certain concession blocks. The ADB team said it is not always clear who the guards are working for, or who they are protecting the team from.

The $900,000 concession review follows up on 1998 World Bank-funded studies that concluded Cambodia’s commercially valuable timber would be depleted within three to five years if previous harvesting rates were allowed to continue.

Government officials themselves have touted the concession review as a way to get rid of companies that aren’t complying with their contracts. As part of a illegal logging crackdown started earlier this year, the government already had canceled 12 concession contracts. Some 20 concession areas remain.

Global Witness, a London-based environmental watchdog, has scheduled a press conference today to detail shortcomings of the ADB review.

At a forestry workshop in Phnom Penh this week, Garry Townley, a forest management consultant for the ADB project, acknowledged that the review has been “seriously limited by the rainy season” and that not a single tree has been observed as being harvested.

While an extended rainy season was a factor, environmentalists and NGOs also have suspected that the concession companies, forewarned of ADB visits, are on their best behavior.

Townley also said the team is primarily inspecting areas that were cut during the last dry season, but that there are no plans to investigate past illegal activities in order to cast blame. “The time constraints and burden of proof are too high,” Townley said. Each field trip lasts one to two days.

Patrick Alley, a director of Global Witness, said the review has been “crippled by financial and time constraints” and criticized the design of the review.

The ADB review called for “intensive field visits,” Alley charged at the forestry workshop. “I don’t think the field visits are intensive.” Alley said that if the team is only looking at early 1999 logging activities, then “anything can happen elsewhere and you won’t be seeing that.”

Alley declined to elaborate until today’s press conference, but indicated that it would not be as difficult to point blame as the ADB team is indicating. Global Witness has said previously that the logging industry is heavily controlled by powerful military, business and political interests.

But despite not observing any cutting, the ADB team has been able to draw some preliminary conclusions based on aerial surveys, satellite images and its field trips.

The ADB team estimates that eight to 16 years of what would be “sustainable” harvesting occurred within a recent, roughly two-year period. That supports previous estimates of the rapid depletion of the country’s forests.

Furthermore, the ADB team has found that concession companies employ poor logging practices, “because they don’t know what they’re doing,” Townley said.

But it’s not always clear who did the logging of an area, ADB team members said. In some cases, the concession companies can’t even get to their own areas. Global Witness has agreed in the past with this assessment, but also says that some concession companies hire subcontractors to illegally cut areas.

Environmental consultant Noelle O’Brien noted at the workshop this week that she had seen trucks of what appeared to be freshly-cut logs moving on the national road near Kompong Thom. She suggested that information like that could be useful to deciding what areas to examine.

When asked what is limiting the concession review to just previously-cut areas, Townley said, “Basically bad luck and poor timing.” But he said that the team did plan five days of aerial surveys over the next couple of weeks, “which hopefully will shed some light” on the situation.

On Thursday, Baykal also said that ADB has decided to extend the concession review into February so the team can examine all 20 concession areas and see dry-season logging activity.

Baykal said revamping the concession-management system will take strong laws, modern forest management plans with conservative harvesting levels, institutional support and transparency.

He said that he has received strong support from the government so far.

A tougher forestry law has been drafted and soon will be issued for public comment before going to the Council of Ministers, he said.

A so-called forest crimes monitoring project has been created that will include an independent group—probably Global Witness—to monitor Cambodia’s forests.

And on Thursday, Bill Magrath of the World Bank said the World Bank intends to give a $5 million loan to the forestry sector. The flexible loan tentatively is slated to build the capacity of the government forestry department and provide technical assistance to concession companies.

In a brief interview Wednesday afternoon, Alley called it “obscene” that the World Bank would be considering providing a loan that would include technical assistance to concessionaires.

But others are of the mind that if Cambodia can strengthen its forestry-management system and law and order, then the bad concession companies will decide to drop out of Cambodia on their own.



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