After nearly a decade of anticipation and countless turbulent episodes between environmentalists and loggers, the National Assembly on Wednesday began debate on a forestry law covering the conservation and cutting of one of the nation’s most precious natural resources.
The debate opened, after 78 out of 89 lawmakers voted to begin discussion, with Chan Sarun, the minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, defending the draft law against criticisms from the government’s independent forest monitor, the UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness.
In published reports on Wednesday Global Witness said the draft law should be scrapped and rewritten.
“The nation needs such a law to contribute to the reduction of poverty and sustainable forest management,” Chan Sarun said. “Global Witness recommended in a letter to me we should put this or that point in the law, but we can’t follow all of their points,” he said.
Chan Sarun said the government has worked hard on the draft law, meeting 19 times. He downplayed criticism and singled out two individuals who made critical comments about the draft in a story published in Wednesday’s Cambodia Daily.
“The ideas published in The Cambodia Daily are individual ideas, but not expert ideas,” said Chan Sarun, referring to Global Witness country director Eva Galabru and the former legal adviser to the Forest Crimes Monitoring and Reporting Project, Pat Lyng.
“Pat Lyng is just a ranger and not a forestry expert, and Global Witness is not a forestry expert but only a monitor. So should we destroy years of our efforts just based on a few words? This is not appropriate,” he said.
Global Witness officials, meanwhile, maintained Wednesday that the draft law fails to adequately address the problem of illegal logging, protect the rights of indigenous people who rely on subsistence forestry or establish a transparent government administration.
The law does not adequately define non-timber forest products and other terms commonly used in forestry enforcement, making abuses of the law more difficult to prosecute, Global Witness officials said.
What’s also disturbing, according to Global Witness, is that the draft law grants broad powers to a forest ranger to define logging violations. If a company cuts a tree it was not supposed to cut, for example, the ranger could decide to issue a monetary fine rather than take the more serious step of filing a court complaint, making it possible that the new law would make it even easier for logging companies to conduct illegal operations.
“If you open up discretionary powers for people on the ground then you’re just asking for trouble,” said Jon Buckrell, of Global Witness.
Global Witness works for the government under an agreement reached in 1999 with oversight from the World Bank, which required the government to appoint a private forestry monitor. The work of Global Witness is largely funded by the British government.
The draft also establishes an annual permitting system for logging, making it likely that small-time, unregulated cutters could operate in Cambodia’s forests, said Marcus Hardtke of Global Witness. He said the draft is also in conflict with existing laws, including the recently passed land law. Indigenous communities were granted rights under the land law that the draft forestry law does not yet recognize, he said.
Hardtke said waiting for a revised law is preferable to passing the proposed legislation.
“It’s really better to have a good law than a fast law,” Hardtke said. “To repair a bad law will be much more expensive.”
Although Global Witness and others were invited to comment during the drafting of the law, the final product was stripped of many of their suggestions after they made them, Jon Buckrell claimed.
“The law became progressively bad rather than progressively good,” he said.
The lucrative logging trade of Cambodia is one of only a handful of profitable industries for the impoverished government. Logging companies must pay a royalty to the government for each tree taken out of the forest.
The draft law would replace the Forest Practices Act of 1988.
In the National Assembly debate Wednesday, the draft law drew criticism from opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, who said it contained loopholes and was too vague.
“This draft law is not yet what we can accept,” he said.
The bill conflicts with other laws, does not provide specific forest data and information, does not adequately include public concerns—especially communities that subsist on forestry—and requires 26 regulations to become effective, Sam Rainsy complained.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said the government has been too weak in enforcing a crackdown on illegal logging. Despite the government order, he said, illegal logging has continued because powerful military, government and business officials profit from it.
Son Chhay said the government does not have the serious “political will” to stop illegal logging.
But Funcinpec lawmaker Nan Sy said he was happy, at least, that the law has come before the assembly.
“Even if it’s late, we need the law to prevent logging,” he said.