Authorities in at least seven provinces have torn down 300 unlicensed sawmills in recent weeks and seized the equipment, the country’s top forestry official says.
Forestry Director Ty Sokhun said Sunday that the crackdown on illegal sawmills has gone smoothly except for a clash Feb 5 with five militiamen in Kompong Speu province. One militiaman trying to prevent a sawmill from being torn down was seriously injured in crossfire and died a day later, he said.
The action against the unlicensed mills comes as the Cambodian government is trying to prove to international donors that it is serious about protecting the its beleaguered forests. World Bank studies conclude that the country’s commercial timber will be logged out in five years if current harvesting rates continue.
“We have to be serious about taking measures against unauthorized sawmills,” Ty Sokhun said. “Our operation must continue.”
US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn suggested two weeks ago at a preparatory meeting for the key Consultative Group donors meeting Feb 25 to 26 in Tokyo that seizing illegal logging equipment would be a way for the government to impress donors.
Conservation Director Chay Samith of the Ministry of Envi-ronment said Monday that he believes the crackdown has been active in Kompong Speu, but said he doubted that more than 200 sawmills have been closed down.
“I believe that right now only small, unlicensed sawmills in open areas or along the roads have been closed down,” Chay Samith said. “But those located in remote areas or in the deep jungle are still operating. A lot of big unlicensed sawmills in Koh Kong are still operating.”
Agriculture Minister Chhea Song said he was still waiting for the official report on the sawmill crackdown, and referred questions to Ty Sokhun.
Ty Sokhun said authorities have torn down sawmills and confiscated equipment in Kompong Speu, Koh Kong, Kompong Thom, Takeo, Stung Treng, Siem Reap and Mondolkiri. He said at least 83 sawmills in Koh Kong agreed to shut down voluntarily.
He said that a government task force suffered no casualties in its clash with militiamen in Kom-pong Speu’s Thpong district on Feb 5, when the militiamen tried to prevent a sawmill from being ripped down.
Three assault rifles and a B-40 rocket launcher were seized, he said, and one militiaman was arrested besides the one killed in the crossfire.
“Now, there is no armed standoff because armed men have stayed out of our way,” Ty Sokhun said.
The environmental watchdog Global Witness recently called a move to cancel logging concessions impressive, but stressed that the military still needs to be taken out of the logging equation. Poorly-paid soldiers have been accused in recent years of protecting illegal logging activities in return for payment.
An estimated 3-4 million cubic meters of trees were illegally harvested in the 1997-98 season.
The government lost millions of dollars as the result of illegal harvesting, according to World Bank-funded studies.
The International Monetary Fund severed $60 million in loans beginning in 1996 largely because of corruption in the forestry industry.