What Cambodia should do next to economically benefit from its forests—yet sustain them for future generations—continues to be a point of contention.
The Cambodian government appears ready to give most commercial logging companies one last chance to perform responsibly, while environmentalists and others continue to call for contract cancellations and a moratorium on all companies until a new management system is in place.
Continued disagreement comes as an Asian Development Bank-funded team reviewing the industry issued its final report this week, reiterating that the current system “is the result of total system failure; resulting from greed, corruption, incompetence and illegal acts that were so widespread and pervasive as to defy the assignment of primary blame.”
Consistent with its draft report, the ADB team recommended that three concessions be cancelled because they are virtually depleted anyway, and that eight other areas be placed under a moratorium.
The team recommended that the government require all companies to submit new forest-management plans and renegotiate contracts. Some 20 companies have concessions covering 4.6 million hectares of Cambodia’s 10.5 million hectares of forests.
But the report stated that ultimately it is up to the government to decide what to do.
Forestry Director Ty Sokhun already has called on the ADB team to help develop new forest-management standards by July.
Environmentalists such as Global Witness say the ADB recommendations simply aren’t tough enough. They want a moratorium to be placed on all concessionaires until a new management system is in place. Global Witness also wants the industry’s worst violators to be kicked out of Cambodia—now.
Global Witness warns that past records indicate concessionaires will ignore the reforms and that the forests in the meantime will be exploited.
“The recommendations of the ADB review treat the concessionaires as ordinary legitimate businesses operating according to conventional international business standards,” the London watchdog group wrote in a statement issued this week.
“The reality is that all but two of the concessionaires do not have the technical ability to conduct the business they are involved in—strange for any legitimate business—and virtually all of the companies have consistently broken every rule of forest management and Cambodian law. They owe their existence in Cambodia to the culture of corruption that pervades the sector and as such operate as a kind of Mafia, avoiding mandatory controls.”
Other NGOs also have called for a moratorium, and for more recognition of local communities’ rights to access forests for their subsistence needs.
But on Wednesday, both Ty Sokhun and Tao Seng Hour, vice chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Council in the government’s cabinet, indicated opposition to cancelling concession contracts or imposing a moratorium.
The government must be careful about cancelling contracts or placing a moratorium on concessionaires without clear-cut evidence against them, Ty Sokhun said. He noted that the ADB report itself doesn’t assign blame to specific concessionaires.
Says the ADB report: “Responsibility for the debacle must be shared by national and provincial politicians, government staff, the police and the military, concessionaires, private businesses and individuals, and by individuals and organizations in the neighboring countries of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.”
Ty Sokhun argued that it would be futile to investigate those who were allegedly responsible for uncontrolled and illegal logging in the past because it would take years to conduct such investigations.
“It is like the police investigating crime in Phnom Penh—most culprits could not be found and caught,” Ty Sokhun said. The government maintains that allegations of illegal logging before 1999 should not be investigated.
A panel made up of foreign forestry experts that reviewed the ADB draft report disagreed, saying that allegations dating back to 1995 should be investigated.
For its part, the Cambodian Timber Industry Association said it supports the establishment of new, tougher forest-management standards.
But Henry Kong, president of the association, said renegotiating contracts has legal implications that should be left up to individual companies. And he said the industry doesn’t think a moratorium is warranted, also citing the ADB report that says no single entity can be blamed. In lieu of a moratorium, Kong said the industry has offered to reduce this year’s permitted harvest by 50 to 75 percent—depending on the depletion of a concession area.
Daniel Asplund, resident representative for the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, said he does not take issue with the work done by the ADB team.
But he said “it’s a pity” that an open discussion has yet to take place on whether a commercial concession system is the best approach to sustainability.
Asplund, who sits in on the donors forestry sector group, characterized a concession system as “mining” a resource, and said he suspects this isn’t the best way to benefit Cambodians economically and socially. Logging revenues have generated only about $10 million a year for the government. In the late 1990s, the World Bank concluded Cambodia’s commercialtimber would be depleted within five years.
if harvesting rates were allowed to continue. The Asian Development Bank is nearly finished with its $900,000 review.
Now officials say the World Bank is poised to spend $5 million over three years to help the government implement new concession-management standards.