Three years ago, a major study commissioned by the Asian Development Bank found forests here so depleted, and cutting rates so rapid, that logging was only viable for a few more years on most concessions.
In plans made public last week, every logging company appears to claim that it can cut for another 25 years, keep the forest intact and still make a worthwhile economic return.
“Somebody may be kidding themselves,” concluded William Magrath, lead natural resource economist at the World Bank’s Cambodia office.
Magrath believes the ADB study numbers are questionable. But he had expected some concession holders to conclude that there were not enough marketable logs to justify keeping their concession for 25 years.
After all, when the government set up the concession system in 1995, it gave many companies concessions that did not contain enough trees in easy-to-reach areas to make logging economically worthwhile, he said.
“The government sold a lot of these concessionaires a bill of goods,” he said, using an idiom implying deception. “A lot of the land is not usable…. Certainly some of these concessions have been heavily exploited and don’t have the materials to support long-term operations.”
Some companies seem to have realized this already. In 1995, Magrath calculates, 30 companies had dominion over nearly 6.5 million hectares of forest. Now, 14 companies control 3.87 million hectares. Some companies simply abandoned logged-out concessions; in a few cases, the government canceled concessions of companies for breaking logging rules.
But if the remaining plans are any indication, every remaining concessionaire believes it can succeed over the long haul. For Global Witness, the country’s official forestry monitor, the implication is clear: Somebody is lying.
“The plans say nothing, because the companies say that in five years they’re out of Cambodia,” said Marcus Hardtke of Global Witness. “They’re just academic exercises.”
With the 25-year cutting plans now under public review, Global Witness is preparing comments claiming that the companies fabricated data on the social and environmental impacts of logging. Global Witness says that the poor state of Cambodia’s forest, and the poor behavior of logging companies, justifies canceling all forest concessions.
The 2000 ADB study recommended halting all logging until new management plans were approved. The government ordered the suspension last December, and the plans were due in September. Now, the Department of Forestry, with the help of World Bank-funded foreign advisers, must decide on the plans—and on the fate of both the forests and the logging companies.
“We have made several inquiries and requests [to the government] not to delay the process any longer,” said Henry Kong of the Cambodia Timber Industry Association, which represents logging companies. “Further delay would automatically wipe out a number of players in the industry.”
Kong contends that 70,000 or more Cambodian jobs depend on continued logging.
Indeed, many of the plans paint a rosy picture of how logging can transform communities for the better. Cambodia Cherndar Plywood, for example, notes that it spent $1 million in 1999 to repair 70 km of road from Preah Vihear town to a village in the logging area. It now maintains the road from Preah Vihear town to Kompong Thom itself at a cost of $300,000 a year, it claims.
“The road has created jobs and income for [villagers] in such easy access for transportation, schooling, medical services, market, etc,” the plan says.
The company predicts it will employ 1,720 in logging and milling in Preah Vihear. Thousands more will benefit by selling goods to the logging employees, in what is known as a spillover effect, it says. Many villagers now involved in slash-and-burn agriculture or other harmful practices will gain legal employment, it says.
“The whole rural population will come to appreciate and value the forest resources more, thereby increasing the general awareness for the need to protect and conserve the resource base,” the plan says.
Whether the logging company can count on the support of local communities is another matter, however. In Western countries, some of the staunchest support for logging comes from towns that depend on logging jobs. But in Cambodia, many companies have alienated villagers by cutting in areas the villagers depend on for resin, rattan or other forest products.
Noun Mung, a villager in Preah Vihear province, said Cherndar has been cutting communal forest areas without consulting her community. She was in Phnom Penh this month to collect a copy of the plan.
“We have lost our livelihoods, and the company has banned us from the forest,” she said, adding, “It all belongs to the community, so the company should not cut.”
Though the plans are generally upbeat about logging, they are sometimes surprisingly frank about how Cambodia got into its current situation. Several blame much of the past overlogging on “provincial and powerful military units.” But they add: “Some concessionaires were forced by circumstance to ‘recruit’ some of these powerful operators rather than fight them.”
The plans include detailed surveys analyzing the livelihoods of people who live in their concession, including how many depend on the forest. They inventory tree types, identify ecologically sensitive areas which should not be cut, and inventory endangered flora and fauna.
The same consultants were used for several plans, resulting in repetition of stock sentences or paragraphs across plans. But Global Witness says some of the data may be fabricated as part of a “cut-and-paste job.”
For example, the Silveroad plans for Koh Kong and Pursat discuss plans to conduct a workshop for affected communities in Siembok—which is in Stung Treng. Cherndar’s Preah Vihear plans speak of a wildlife sanctuary adjacent to Mondolkiri.
At least two plans, TPP Cambodia and Yurey Saco, contain clear evidence that they were performed by Department of Forestry foresters—a clear conflict of interest when the department is also supposed to pass judgment on the plans, said Eva Galabru of Global Witness.
The plans have other quirks, Galabru has discovered. Some mention species like saltwater mangrove and jackfruit that wouldn’t be found in forests here, she said. And one plan’s survey of religious groupings lists a significant number of “Brahmins.”
Originally the 25-year plans were supposed to be followed by 5-year plans and annual plans before any cutting permits were issued. But in late October meeting forestry officials said the 5-year plans may be unnecessary, frustrating donors.
Magrath said the 5-year plans are necessary to ensure that roads are built wisely and cutting does not occur in areas reserved for endangered animals or communal forestry. Typically, companies have not planned adequately even when it was in their financial interest, he said.
“Concessionaires are not the high quality professionals we’d like them to be…. We know they don’t care about the things the government and public would like them to care about.”
Whatever the virtues of the plans, they mean little if the government does not verify their accuracy and ensure that they are carried through properly, Magrath said.
In the plans, the companies promise to log selectively, leaving enough young trees and letting areas lie fallow long enough for the forest to regrow. The government expects companies to “actively discourage” people from using logging roads to enter the forest for destructive activities like wildlife poaching or slash-and-burn agriculture.
But many companies note in the plans that they have no right to arrest those who violate the rules. They also complain of high royalties and taxes that make logging less viable. Meanwhile, the public versions of the plan cut out chapters on financial viability that Global Witness say are key to assessing whether the concessions can work. The companies say the information could hurt their competitive advantage.
Galabru said companies currently make little effort to police the logged-out portions of their concessions, sometimes selling it off for plantations or profiting off illegal logging. The risk is that the companies will build roads, cut out the most valuable trees and disappear, leaving the forest open for destructive use.
“We’re seeing hundreds of hectares disappear between visits,” she said.