A series of log shipments across the country this week has sparked concern that timber companies in Cambodia are violating a government moratorium.
Dozens of log-filled trucks moving out of Preah Vihear and Siem Reap provinces have been sighted, while log rafts have begun appearing in large numbers on the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
Although the shipments are probably legal logs, cut last year and stockpiled before the moratorium took effect in late December, the Department of Forestry and Wildlife has been reluctant to provide copies of permits apparently issued to the logging companies, according to officials of the environmental watchdog Global Witness.
Global Witness, appointed by the government in 1999 as part of a broad plan to protect forests, is entitled to the documents under existing agreements governing the country’s logging.
The new shipments come at a time when the relationship between Global Witness and government has again deteriorated.
At a government-sponsored logging conference Thursday, a discussion group made up mainly of officials from the Ministry of Environment and the Department of Forestry and Wildlife lambasted Global Witness for what they said were efforts to embarrass the government by releasing damaging information.
The government officials complained that Global Witness wants “only to please themselves” and often reports on cases that have already been solved. In a veiled threat to Global Witness, the discussion group stated some other organization, such as the Swiss accounting firm SGS, might make a better monitor.
Those remarks brought a response from Simon Bland, senior rural livelihoods adviser for the Department for International Development, a branch of the UK government and one of the donors that supports Global Witness.
Bland urged the conference attendees to consider the value of having an independent monitor, even if “the message will not always be an easy message.”
But the chill in the relationship between the government and Global Witness is in some ways to be expected, UN Food and Agricultural Organization official Pat Lyng said.
“Everybody wants this thing to run smoothly, but this is not like anything that anyone has ever dealt with before.” Lyng said. “We are dealing with issues of crime. This is not going to be a smooth process.”
The problems go back more than one year. Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Global Witness of timing the release of a critical report to damage the government’s relations with donors.
Global Witness was threatened with expulsion from Cambodia, and eventually had to agree to a series of protocols which require the organization to share its findings with the government before they are made public.
But the government has hindered enforcement work by notifying companies of reported violations before investigating them, thus allowing the companies to remove evidence before inspectors arrive, Global Witness official Marcus Hardtke said.
This week’s shipments also concerned Hardtke because it’s unclear if recently cut logs are among those being trucked out. The only logs that can legally be moved currently are from stockpiles of trees cut before the moratorium went into effect, he said.
A Department of Forestry and Wildlife survey of stockpiles in December and January determined that some 25,135 logs totaling 94,300 cubic meters of wood had been cut and were awaiting shipment.
Hun Sen ordered the logging moratorium after reports showed the country spent more money in 2001 paying for flood damage caused by deforestation than was received in royalties from the logging companies.
The moratorium may be lifted later this year, once all of the logging companies have filed management plans which include estimates of the social and environmental costs of their logging.
Only five companies have filed their plans with the Department of Forestry and Wildlife, according to a department adviser, who said the plans were not written in English and were returned to the companies for translation.