Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories to be published in The Cambodia Daily ahead of the international donor meeting that begins today. The stories will mostly examine the various issues of reform the government continues to face, and the progress that has been made in those areas.
The National Assembly takes up a long-awaited law on forestry today in a debate that could be a measure of hope for Cambodia’s ravaged forests, though conservationists are already saying the draft law is too weak to make much of a difference against rampant logging.
Government officials, meanwhile, say the legislation comes just as the country has made progressive reforms in the logging sector to curtail abuses and hold private companies accountable for their management of individual “concessions,” the areas the government has granted them for logging.
The opening day of the forest law debate coincides with the opening today of the annual donor meeting, in which Cambodia is requesting $1.4 billion over the next three years. Donors have in the past suspended aid to Cambodia over the logging issue, saying more was needed to be done to protect Cambodia’s forests before funding would resume.
Any donor that hopes to determine the condition of Cambodia’s forests today must weigh two perspectives; that of the government and that of the government-appointed watchdog, the UK-based environmental group Global Witness.
The two sides are so far apart in describing logging here—the government says there are 15 concessions, Global Witness says there are 23—that government officials have even suggested hiring a new monitor, accusing Global Witness officials of exaggerating abuses in order to embarrass the government.
Global Witness, meanwhile, says the government does not enforce its own laws.
First, there is the government’s view:
“We have succeeded in forestry reform better than other countries in Asia,” said Ty Sokhun, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Department. “No country has better forestry reform than Cambodia. In 2000, we reduced the amount of timber exploitation and in 2002, timber companies were ordered to conduct their inventory and environmental impact assessment and to halt their operation until their master plans are being reviewed. And we also stopped the movement of cut logs on May 23 in order to upgrade the monitoring system.
“Now Global Witness has had nothing to exaggerate or say,” he added.
Indeed, this year has been a difficult one for logging companies. Emboldened by a report that logging worsened flood damage and cost the government more in road and bridge repairs than was collected in logging royalties, the government last year issued a moratorium on logging.
Logging companies working in Cambodia have been under the moratorium since Jan 1, and were ordered to submit management plans to the Department of Forestry. So far, most of the companies have complied, according to Ty Sokhun.
The government’s numbers back him up. Just 150,000 to 200,000 cubic meters of wood were cut last year, according to government figures. That’s a far cry from 1997, when a World Bank study said 4 million cubic meters of wood had been cut in the previous year. At that rate, the study said, Cambodia would lose all of its forests in five to 10 years.
A spokesman for the logging companies also said progress has been made over the course of the past year.
“Definitely there has been good progress in the reform processes, particularly in the suppression of the large scale illegal logging,” said Henry Kong, chairman of the Cambodian Timber Industry Association.
But then there is this from the local office of Global Witness:
“Nothing has changed. It is business as usual,” said Eva Galabru, country director for the government-appointed forestry monitor.
She said the draft forestry law does not go far enough to protect Cambodia’s forests.
“My hopes are that it would be sent back and redrafted,” she said. “It has conflicts with existing laws and existing subdecrees. In no way does it protect the rights of forest dependent communities. It gives too much arbitrary power to one institution without providing for checks and balances, and it legalizes quite a lot of existing bad practices.
“It sets out quite a number of penalties for violations which currently are not covered by existing laws. But the problem with the draft forestry law is that is needs to be seen as a complete text, and I don’t see how additional penalties will fix the overall problem, which lies elsewhere.”
The relationship between Global Witness and the government was sorely strained when Galabru was beaten outside of her office on April 30. An e-mail sent to her the next day from an unidentified sender said only, “Quit.” The timing of the beating—less than a week after Global Witness publicly stated that it had found evidence of illegal logging—and the fact that Galabru was not robbed, lead many to believe that it was retaliatory. No one has been arrested in the case.
If Cambodia does get a new forestry law, it remains to be seen if it will be enforced. Conservationists have decried past cases that appeared to be violations of the country’s logging laws but were never prosecuted.
Three cases in particular make it seem as though the government has no interest in prosecuting logging companies.
In the first case, satellite images revealed in October 2000 that the Everbright logging company was operating in four areas, though they had permission to operate in only one.
In another case, independent monitors discovered 186 unmarked logs in a concession run by the Pheapimex logging company. Cut logs are supposed to be marked and inventoried, a system that allows the government to accurately monitor logging and to ensure that the company pays royalties on all of the trees cut.
Finally, on March 30 of this year, during an overflight inspection, monitors discovered evidence suggesting that the GAT logging company was operating in an area without permission and cutting in February or March, in violation of the current moratorium. The loggers appeared to be cutting resin trees as well.
None of the cases has led to a prosecution in a courtroom, though they would all qualify, said Pat Lyng, the former legal adviser for the Forestry Crime Monitoring and Reporting Project, which is supported by the UNDP and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Ty Sokhun said the government continues to gather information on the GAT case.
But the Department of Forestry and Wildlife should file a court complaint over each of the cases, Lyng said.
There’s also the concern that logging companies are cutting trees despite the logging moratorium by using a loophole in the way that the moratorium was written: it bans logging in forestry concessions, but does not mention land concessions, which some logging companies own.
Again, Global Witness has found evidence of logging in the land concessions that would seem to be a violation of the logging moratorium, Lyng said.
Lyng referred further questions to Forestry Department official Eng Savit. But Eng Savit hung up on a reporter when he was asked about logging earlier this month and then refused to answer his phone.