An Asian Development Bank-funded review of Cambodia’s commercial logging operations is being praised as hard-hitting overall, but too soft on the industry’s worst offenders.
The draft report issued earlier this month by consulting firm Fraser Thomas recommends terminating three concessions that are almost commercially logged out, and placing a moratorium on cutting in at least eight other seriously-depleted concessions. The report also calls for all 20 concession companies to draw up sound management plans and renegotiate their government contracts.
“Although these measures are welcomed, the report fails to recommend terminating any concession because of their illegal logging activities, despite extensive recent evidence of such activities,” Jon Buckrell of the environmental watchdog Global Witness wrote by e-mail.
Global Witness and donors such as British Ambassador George Edgar have urged the ADB-funded team to use the review as an opportunity to root out some of the worst timber operators.
Increasingly, critics privately and in forestry working groups also are questioning whether Cambodia should keep a forestry concession system at all. The first concession was granted in 1994 and since then rampant logging has taken place—albeit the pace has slowed since Prime Minister Hun Sen instituted a crackdown early last year.
A two-day workshop has been scheduled for late next week to discuss the ADB-funded concession review, which is widely recognized as a critical piece in Cambodia’s reform efforts.
Forestry Director Ty Sokhun has said the concession review makes some good points, but has not indicated what the government’s position might be on the recommendations. Donors such as Britain, which has been helping fund a forest-crime monitoring program, also have been studying the report.
At one time, more than 30 concessions covered nearly 7 million of Cambodia’s 10.5 million hectares of forestland. The government unilaterally canceled 12 concessions totaling more than 2 million hectares in early 1999 as part of its crackdown on illegal logging. The 20 concession companies that remain cover 4.6 million hectares of land.
The Fraser Thomas draft report blasts concessionaires, saying only two employ professional foresters and none have measures to monitor the health of the forests. The team also concluded that there was a deliberate effort to cut the richest forests as quickly as possible.
The report also stated that the “greed of illegal logger has caused serious damage” to Cambodia’s protected areas and “little has been achieved” in the terms of realizing the importance of resources to the livelihoods of the country’s rural people.
Said Buckrell of Global Witness: “The document states it like it is and does not pull any punches with regard to the state of the Cambodian forest sector.” Where there is disagreement is over the recommendations. The report recommends halting concessions and placing a moratorium on others, based on the depletion of timber resources in a particular area.
Global Witness and some other NGOs, meanwhile, are calling for the government to terminate the worst violators and impose a moratorium on all concession activity until management plans have been revised and contracts renegotiated.
While the Fraser Thomas report did not single out culprits, it did apply a “sustainable forest management performance rating” to concessionaires currently in operation. The rating was based on such factors as management plans, harvesting methods, environmental sensitivity, and consultation with the community.
Six companies were rated as being “unacceptable in all aspects…urgent action required,” according to the draft report.
Those include companies not on the moratorium or concession termination list, such as Pheapimex Fuchan Co and Hero Taiwan—two companies that especially have been singled out by Global Witness. Both have large concession areas in the northeast.
But the report stops short of advocating that those contracts be terminated. Orhan Baykal, the Fraser Thomas team leader, has indicated in discussions a number of reasons why.
First, while those are the worst performers, no concession company is managing its area in a sustainable way. (The report mentions one company—GAT International—as needing only minor improvements).
Second, legal advisers have said that there aren’t strong legal grounds for the government to terminate the contracts. In part, that’s because the forestry department staff itself helped prepare the management plans of all but two concessionaires.
Third, a code of practice was adopted only at the end of last year and has yet to be enforced. Fourth, allegations of illegal logging mostly have been made by Global Witness and the concessionaires have not yet been put through a due process of law.
Baykal has indicated in previous interviews that he sees his mandate to figure out ways to correct the system, not kill it.
“When the house is on fire, the first job we believe should be to put the fire down and save the house,” he told participants at a workshop earlier this month when he issued the draft report. He indicated that others could go after the “arsonists.”
Henry Kong, chairman of the Cambodia Timber Industry Association, and other industry officials have blamed high levels of harvesting on individuals and companies that have trespassed on concessionaire property.
Kong said Wednesday that he would reserve further comment until next week’s workshop.