Environmental watchdog Global Witness often has been dismissed by logging companies and government officials as extremist in its view of deforestation in Cambodia.
But preliminary findings by a World Bank-funded consulting team are remarkably similar: Cambodia’s forests will be “logged over” within three to five years if current harvest rates continue.
“Logged over” in this case means that all the economically valuable trees will be cut. That’s perhaps only a slightly better scenario than Global Witness’ vision of a forest-turned-sandpit.
During a visit last month by a top World Bank regional official, Agriculture Minister Tao Seng Huor agreed to a six-point plan to combat illegal logging.
Central to the enforcement plan, which the consultants still are refining, is the creation of an independent task force to crack down on illegal activities. The plan also includes a moratorium on new logging concessions and a ban on collecting old logs.
The two prime ministers have agreed to the plan, Tao Seng Huor said Wednesday. He said he now is waiting for World Bank funds to put in place a strike force which he envisions including 500 soldiers.
But forestry experts remain unconvinced that the prime ministers, who have been charged with condoning and approving illegal logging, are serious. In fact, the speed with which they agreed to the plan—essentially a scribbled yes in the margin of Tao Seng Huor’s letter within days of receiving his recommendation—raised more than a few eyebrows.
The task force “is a good idea, but it would have to be well-trained, well-equipped and financed,” Simon Taylor, a Global Witness director, said recently. “This is more long-term—but a good initiative. Donors should support this move if it is taken seriously.”
It was unhappy international donors who pushed the idea of forestry reform at a high-profile donor meeting in Tokyo in 1996. Eventually, four World Bank-funded technical-assistance projects were created with the government’s blessing.
Those international consulting teams are just now forming preliminary conclusions and recommendations.
In one of those reports, the forestry consultants estimate more than 4 million cubic meters of timber were harvested in 1997—at least three times a rate deemed sustainable. The figures don’t include logging in Khmer Rouge-controlled areas.
Nearly 95 percent of the timber harvest was estimated to be illegal, about 20 percent of the harvest was exported in the form of illegal logs, and Cambodia lost an estimated $54 million in royalties, according to the report.
The findings were based largely on field work and fly-overs between November and February and satellite images taken in 1996 and 1997.
The findings showed that illegal logging was particularly intense in Ratanakkiri, Koh Kong, Battambang and Kratie provinces. In Ratanakkiri alone, at least 10 major log stockpiles, many of them deep in the forest, were detected by satellite images.
Satellite images and fly-overs indicated that about half of Bokor National Park in southern Cambodia had been logged recently and that a sliver of remote Virachey National Park in northeastern Cambodia had been cut. In all, about 20 percent of protected forests such as national parks were being actively harvested, according to the report.
Rather than name culprits, the report tried to explain how the system has failed. “The current regulatory framework is a recipe for uncontrolled logging,” the report stated, creating in some cases “perverse incentives.”
For example, in 1997, the government sold permits to collect more than 200,000 cubic meters of illegally cut timber. Since the permits weren’t effectively monitored, they essentially gave the holders a legal excuse to cut new trees.
“This is the major loophole by which the military are able to collect ‘old logs’ which they mysteriously keep finding in the forest,” said Taylor of Global Witness.
The six-point enforcement plan would rescind the policies of collecting old logs, but like other parts of the plan the question now is just how serious the two prime ministers will be.