A Malaysian company accused of illegal logging and road building in the Cardamom mountain region in southwest Cambodia said that the company was merely following an Asian Development Bank request to conduct a tree inventory in its concession.
“We didn’t do any mistakes…
because ADB requested an inventory,” Goh Chieh, director of Grand Atlantic Timber International Ltd in Cambodia, said Saturday. “We construct a road, of course. If no road, how can our workers do the inventory?”
But the ADB logging review team leader and Cambodia’s agriculture minister both said Monday that GAT’s reasoning is flawed.
“I’m extremely upset,” said Orhan Baykal, the team leader of an ADB-funded review of Cambodia’s commercial logging operations. “An inventory means that you send people to the field in areas where access is not possible. You walk. In forestry, you don’t go everywhere in a jeep.”
Baykal, a former forester in Turkey, said that by logging and building the road without permission, GAT had undermined a newfound cooperation by the industry to curtail uncontrolled logging.
Said Agriculture Minister Chhea Song: “In fact, [GAT] violated the regulations. We are preparing a case against it. I don’t think [the company] made the right excuse.”
The Cardamoms, essentially closed off during Cambodia’s civil war, are being eyed by conservation groups after a recent survey indicated an environment rich in rare plants and animals, including Siamese crocodiles. Conservationists fear roads will give laccess to the rugged terrain.
The environmental watchdog Global Witness said last week that it spotted the illegal logging and road building by GAT during an aerial surveillance on May 26, the same day major donors were pledging $548 million to Cambodia at a meeting in Paris.
An inspection team that included Global Witness and forestry officials subsequently found 777 illegally cut logs and evidence that GAT had cut not only in unapproved areas of its own concession but also in a neighboring concession operated by Samling International of Malaysia.
Forestry Director Ty Sokhun has sent a letter ordering GAT to suspend its activities and said Friday that the government would sue GAT. Global Witness has gone further, calling for the government to cancel GAT’s concession agreement for breach of contract. A Samling manager said last week that the company complained in April about the encroachment.
Goh maintained Saturday that GAT had cut the trees only for road clearing and to construct a bridge.
He acknowledged GAT cut through Samling’s concession, but claimed it had to because it was the most accessible route in the difficult terrain.
The disputed road being built in Koh Kong province stretches toward the Cardamoms and areas that GAT would have permission to cut only during the later years of its 25-year concession agreement signed in July 1995.
But Goh was adamant GAT had done nothing wrong. “We have constructed more than 100 km of main road, not only for companies but also for local people,” he said. “On one hand, ADB requests us to do an inventory and on the other hand, Global Witness says we’re cutting illegally.”
Baykal said an inventory doesn’t mean spending large amounts of money on a major logging road. He said the government and industry agreed on conducting an inventory of the areas, or what are called coupes in the industry, approved for cutting this year and the subsequent four years. “Usually those coupes are adjacent each others, within reasonable walking, camping distance.”
Baykal added that it remains to be decided how much of GAT’s concession should be logged given the mountainous terrain and the rich biology. “It’s possible certain parts will be declared a special management area [and thus restricted from logging] because of endangered species and steep slopes,” Baykal said.
Baykal noted that during the concession review, the ADB team actually had found GAT quite professional compared with others in the industry. “So we had a good impression of GAT. This is why I’m extremely upset.”
GAT also has been criticized for ignoring local community needs to use tree resin in GAT’s concession in Kompong Thom province. Goh maintained Saturday he knew nothing of that controversy.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)