Ex-Environment Minister Says Deforestation Exaggerated

Former Environment Minister Mok Mareth on Tuesday accused the media of having “twisted the truth” in reporting on illegal logging in Ratanakkiri province, where rights groups and independent forestry monitors say the natural environment is being pillaged and ethnic minority communities impoverished by illegal loggers and agro-industry companies.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Mr. Mareth, a CPP member of parliament who currently chairs the National Assembly’s Third Commission on Environment and Water Resources, said recent media coverage of illegal logging in the northeast had also “twisted public opinion, especially the youth, about the government’s success in encouraging conservation and investment on the fringes of conservation zones for the benefit of the nation and the people.”

Human rights groups say the rate of logging by private land concession holders across the country has risen sharply in the past year.

Earlier this month, local officials in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district found thousands of pieces of luxury-grade timber stockpiled at a sawmill on a land concession owned by Daun Penh Agrico Co. Ltd.

District and commune officials said they were powerless to stop such logging, which they alleged was conducted outside the company’s official 8,825-hectare economic land concession in the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary.

Ratanakkiri provincial governor Pao Ham Phan explained the logging, saying that the company had been given a second, “unofficial” concession in another location in the sanctuary.

In his letter Tuesday, Mr. Mareth, whose former ministry is responsible for authorizing land concessions inside conservation zones, such as in Lumphat, argued that the government is protecting the country’s forests and simultaneously encouraging economic growth.

“In the management and use of natural resources for economic development, the Cambodian government takes into account of the economic efficiency, environmental protection, management and wise use of natural resources,” the former minister wrote.

“I think that the policy ambition to confiscate land concession[s] for agri-industry, eco-tourism, special economic zone[s] and resort center[s] is the loss for the country,” he added.

Mr. Mareth did not mention the Lumphat sanctuary in his letter.

However, he argued that companies operating inside another conservation zone, Ratanakkiri’s 332,500-hectare Virachey National Park, were doing little harm to the natural environment.

Land concession firms “just remove the scattered remaining trees” from their concessions and “clear the area for agri-industry…under strict management and monitoring of the park rangers and local authorities.”

The province’s indigenous communities benefit directly from such companies, he claimed.

“Indeed, the minority groups get job[s] as workers and technicians from the development investment which improve[s] their family income which contributes to [a] reduction of population movement from the country to other countries for job[s],” he wrote.

Forest monitors and those working with indigenous communities Tuesday rejected the minister’s rosy appraisal of the situation in Ratanakkiri.

Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said that companies with government-issued land concessions are only a detriment to local residents.

“Before, villagers were practicing sustainable farming. But now, they have lost their farmland because the private companies confiscated the land from them,” Mr. Thy said.

“We have seen the living standards of those people decrease, and now they are facing difficulties finding sources of revenue,” he added.

Pierre-Yves Clais, a longtime resident of Ratanakkiri and the owner of the Terres Rouge Lodge in Banlung district, also painted a very different picture of the situation in the Virachey park.

“All that’s happening around the park is sheer destruction and the local authorities are doing nothing but turning a blind eye on it,” Mr. Clais wrote in an email Tuesday.

Sek Sophorn, national project coordinator at the International Labor Organization, which works to protect the communal property rights of 114 ethnic minority groups in seven provinces, said that indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a large-scale agro-industry.

“Their lives depend on the forest around their communities, and those forests have been destroyed,” Mr. Sophorn said.

“I see that the companies gain a lot of income from logging the trees; that is the main goal, [but] indigenous communities are suffering,” he added.

A report released by environmental watchdog Global Witness in May said Ratanakkiri’s ethnic minorities blamed Vietnamese-held land concessions for impoverishing their communities.

“In every community visited by Global Witness, people described how their standard of living had been damaged by HAGL’s [Hoang Anh Gia Lai] subsidiaries taking their land and forest,” Global Witness wrote. HAGL and its subsidiary firms hold some 46,370 hectares of concession land in Ratanakkiri, about 5 percent of the province’s total land area, Global Witness wrote.

A study published in the journal Science earlier this month found that Cambodia experienced the fifth-highest rate of deforestation in the world.

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