Imagine 700 well-armed and well-trained rangers in camouflage uniforms patrolling Cambodia’s forests for illegal loggers.
That is the centerpiece of a proposal to restore order to Cambodia’s renegade timber industry.
The proposal, formally unveiled Friday at a forum in Phnom Penh, is one of the recommendations made by four World Bank-funded forestry reform teams.
In its final report, the group reiterated preliminary findings reported earlier this year that Cambodia’s forests will be seriously depleted within five years if current deforestation rates continue. Those rates are three to four times higher than a sustainable level, according to the group.
The forum was attended by a number of high-ranking government officials and diplomats, who in general expressed support for forestry reform, including the ranger proposal.
“I feel optimistic and trust the proposal,” First Prime Minister Ung Huot said during a break in the proceedings.
And at the meeting, Ung Huot formally issued an order to combat illegal logging.
Still, specific recommendations from the four teams aren’t expected to be acted on before the scheduled July 26 elections.
The rangers would be part of a proposed Cambodian Forest Action Center, structurally modeled after the generally well-regarded Cambodian Mine Action Center. The center would operate independently of the government, but report to the Council of Ministers.
US-based Development Alternatives Inc, the log-monitoring consulting team that developed the proposal with input from some high-ranking government officials, is recommending a budget of nearly $30 million over a five-year period. International donors also expressed support, but said they need time to consider the project.
The rangers would go through 12 weeks of training and be equipped with weapons, trail motorbikes, global positioning system radios and camouflage uniforms. They would have the power to arrest illegal loggers and seize logs.
The strike force likely would be built up over time. It is envisioned that some rangers would be permanently stationed in areas, while others might roam between problem spots.
Tony Babb, vice president of the US group, said that land operated by private concessionaires would be patrolled as well as designated for national protection. He said armed rangers have been used in other countries to stop illegal logging activity.
Simon Taylor, a director of Global Witness, an environmental watchdog, said earlier this year that such a strike force could be a good idea as long as it is well-trained, well-equipped and well-financed.
What would prevent the rangers from falling to corruption themselves?
In part, the relatively decent salaries of the rangers, who would earn at least $160 a month, Colonel David Mead, who helped design the system, told the forum participants last Friday. “If they are corrupted, they would be sacked,” said Australia’s former defense attache in Phnom Penh.
The illegal trade in northeast Cambodia alone over the last dry season was estimated at roughly $200 million by Global Witness. Global Witness and the consultant groups say the money lines the pockets of individuals at almost every level of society, including military and provincial officials.
The consultant groups are trying to persuade the government that a legal industry is more advantageous than an illegal one.
Although not as many trees could be cut, the World Bank report argues that the government could collect as much as $100 million a year in revenue.
Furthermore, foreign aid is at stake: The International Monetary Fund suspended its $120 million loan program to Cambodia in late 1996 in part because of corruption in the forestry industry.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon agreed that a sound forest policy is an investment in the future, but said the full cooperation of bordering countries is essential. He said the present government will try its best to help the post-election government take immediate action on forestry reforms.