A troubled international effort to safeguard Cambodia’s forests dies today as the government carries out its threat to sever ties with Global Witness, an NGO that began working for the government in 1999 amid hopes that it would rein in anarchic forces plundering Cambodia’s forests.
Global Witness Country Director Eva Galabru said that today marks the deadline set three months ago by Prime Minister Hun Sen for Global Witness to wrap up its work for the government, though she added she had received no formal announcement as of Monday evening that her work was done.
Her counterpart in the government, Ty Sokhun, who is director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry, reacted angrily Monday when asked about the agency, saying he didn’t care if Global Witness stayed in Cambodia to work on its own.
“I do not know anything about it,” he said. “Stay or not stay. We do not care. The important thing is that we have to continue to do our work.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said in the past that Global Witness would be allowed to stay in the country to work independently of the government; it will no longer be expected to forward its forest crimes reports to the government for action, however.
The loss of Global Witness marks the end of what was once billed as an aggressive campaign to slow, if not halt, the emptying of Cambodia’s forests, which occurred at an alarming rate in the late 1990s. Estimates at the time said that Cambodia would lose its most valuable forests in three to five years.
Relations between the agency and the government plummeted in early December, after a violent confrontation between villagers and police at the department of forestry offices on Norodom Boulevard. Ty Sokhun blamed Global Witness and Eva Galabru specifically, saying the NGO had whipped up anti-government feelings that led to the protest. The government even filed a lawsuit against Galabru, which they later dropped.
Whether the government and Global Witness ever fulfilled the donors’ wishes is debatable: In the years that it acted as the government’s forestry monitor, Global Witness reported dozens of forest crimes to the government, but just one case led to a court conviction: a monetary penalty against Grand Atlantic Timber of Malaysia for logging violations in Koh Kong province.
The lack of prosecutions left the donor community unsatisfied, according to a World Bank forestry expert.
“We’re disappointed in what we’ve been seeing; the punishments and the amount of sanctions have not been proportionate to the amount of logging we have seen,” said William MacGrath, of the World Bank in Phnom Penh.
He said a $15 million World Bank credit has been suspended and will not be granted until a replacement has been found for Global Witness. Despite the setback, progress continues on forestry reform in Cambodia, MacGrath said. His priority has been a forestry management system that promises to regulate the timber industry.
But what comes next for logging in Cambodia may not be known for weeks or even months: Talks between the government and donors about replacing Global Witness have been stymied by opposing views of what’s best for the country.
The government told donors in January that it wanted to create a group with members drawn from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Forestry and interested donors to replace Global Witness, an idea that was “half-baked” according to one international observer.
The donor community instead formed the Working Group on Natural Resource Management chaired by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Asian Development Bank and sent a letter to the Ministry of Agriculture urging them to keep Global Witness on as the monitor until a suitable replacement could be found.
The government has not yet responded to that letter, according to two people participating in the talks, but the Ministry of Agriculture has drawn up a list of requirements for a replacement that has met donor’s expectations.
Possible replacements include environmental NGOs, general auditing companies and security and theft prevention companies, according to a person close to the negotiations.
Eva Galabru said she would be surprised if another monitor were chosen, however.
“I would be very surprised if the donors are actually doing this. I remember very distinctly the donors saying, ‘If we are asked about hiring another independent monitor, we will say Global Witness,’” she said. Global Witness will continue to work in Cambodia for now with funding from the Danish International Development Agency.
Calls to the FAO and ADB were not immediately returned on Monday. The Minister of Agriculture, Chan Sarun, referred questions to the director of the forestry department.